Origins of the Abbotsford Flying Club and Airshow

Origins of the Abbotsford Flying Club and Airshow

By Steve Stewart

We start with the post-war situation of the Abbotsford Airport, its role through the 1950s, and its relationship to Vancouver Airport.

Vancouver Airport was created in 1931 as a civilian airport serving Vancouver and the surrounding region. It is on Sea Island, which is part of the City of Richmond, but was owned by the City of Vancouver. During the war the RCAF took over, and their presence continued through the following two decades or more. However, when peace returned in 1945, Vancouver Airport soon continued on its former trajectory of providing a focus for the growth of civilian air traffic on the west coast, and internationally.

In contrast, Abbotsford Airport was built specifically as a consequence of war. It started as an Elementary Flying School, and then became an Operational Training Unit. But within weeks of the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the entire operation was closed down, and almost everyone left. For some time it was used to store surplus aircraft. It remained a DND asset, and was part of various RCAF exercises for some years, including  a major combined army and air reserve exercise in July of 1951, regular use for Air Cadet summer exercises and gliding, and was part of the Civil Defence plans. As an emergency facility, in 1948, during the Fraser River flood, its barracks and grounds housed civilians and livestock displaced from Sumas and Matsqui Prairies. They were used again during flooding in February 1951. Just after the 1948 flood, an airshow was organized by the Abbotsford Lions Club and the Chilliwack Flying Club, with a large part of the profits dedicated for the relief of flood victims.

The barracks and other buildings were used again from 1956 to 1958 to house refugees from the Soviet response to the Hungarian uprising. Also in 1956, Lady Baden Powell attended a rally of 2,000 Girl Guides and Brownies. But usually the buildings remained empty, and there was a persistent trend to sell the ones that could be moved and repurposed. In 1960 a 30 by 68 foot building was moved some miles north up Mt Lehman road to become the Veterans’ Association building (where it still is), and the Guard House was moved to become the Matsqui Police Station and Courtroom. Classified ads in the local newspapers regularly offered buildings for sale, either complete or dismantled. Some buildings were used in place, with School District 34 arranging to use them for a 22 room school during the 1951-52 school year, on the understanding that the school would have to close if an immediate DND need emerged.

Although smaller parts of its physical infrastructure were gradually being eroded, the airport was still seen as a valuable resource by the Federal Government, by the local communities, by some civilian aviators, and by motor racing enthusiasts.

At that time instrument landing systems were not so capable of guiding airline flights into Vancouver during fog, and fog is much more common at Vancouver than at Abbotsford. Moreover, at that time there was a lot of industrial air pollution and smoke from beehive burners, that combined with the fog to make it more persistent, especially at lower altitudes. So Abbotsford became the regular diversion airport for Vancouver. A terminal facility with customs and arrivals lounge was set up in Hangar 2, and bus service provided for the trip to Vancouver. The terminal facility was in frequent, though irregular, use. Moreover, the runways were kept usable.  In one five-day period of November 1956 there were 150 diversions, and all the airlines made Abbotsford their base of operations. Sometimes important flights arrived intentionally. In 1953 Field Marshall Sir John Harding, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, toured Canada, visiting army bases throughout the country. He flew in to Abbotsford from Vancouver on his way to inspect the school of military engineering in Chilliwack, then returned to board his plane for Calgary. In July of 1958 Princess Margaret flew in, as part of her tour celebrating the centennial of the formation of British Columbia in 1858.  Civilian aviators visited from other established airports and marveled at the three long, wide runways.

It was actually the airport’s lack of busy flying activity that attracted the burgeoning sport of sky-diving, and during the late 1950s sky-diving was a common sight. The round parachutes used back then did not offer much directional control, and a large target area was desirable. In 1958, as part of the British Columbia Centenary celebrations, the North American Championships and trials for the world sky-diving championships were held at Abbotsford, and it was the location for some ‘firsts’. One was the first pass in North America of a one foot long yellow and green baton from one free-falling sky-diver to another, after jumping from 12,500 feet and while falling at 240 mph.

Starting in 1951 Abbotsford Airport became the major venue for motor racing in the region. Various circuits could be laid out, using the runways, taxiways and apron. Grass fires were not uncommon.  Barely a week went by without a sports car or motorcycle event. Sometimes even ladies got to drive, but with a head-start handicap – of course. And there was drag racing as well. From 1949, Annual Auto Shows were organized by the Lions Club in Hangar One. Racing continued right through to the very last race on March 30th 1958, the day before the airport was transferred from the Ministry of Defence to the Ministry of Transport.

Way back in 1951, a visionary letter to the Editor of the Vancouver Sun, from F. S. Hayward in Abbotsford, described why Abbotsford Airport was so valuable. At the time its potential use in another war was still of great significance, but he also recognised it as the ideal location for an international civilian airport, citing its location on the US border which could allow joint customs; the significant absence of fog compared to Vancouver; and its solid gravel base and heavy-duty runways. ”All we need do now is build a four or six lane highway from Abbotsford to Vancouver city centre…”

But as time passed, the prospects of Abbotsford returning to full-time use, as an airport or RCAF base seemed to fade, despite rumours that the RCAF operations from Sea Island might end, and be transferred.

Vancouver was becoming ever busier. In early 1957 officials in Ottawa released a plan for Pitt Meadows to become Vancouver’s second airport, capable of handling aircraft up to the twin-engine DC-3, and with 4,000 foot grass runways. According to the plan, Abbotsford would be the third Vancouver Airport and have a runway extension to 7,000 feet.  Surveys started for the extension in May. The BC Aviation Council protested the choice of Pitt Meadows and called for Boundary Bay to be re-opened stating that it was half the distance from downtown Vancouver, had half the rainfall of Pitt Meadows, and already had hangars, runways and other facilities. Boundary Bay had not been maintained as an airfield since the end of the war, but the MoT showed some interest in the idea.  Then in October it was announced that “Abbotsford would be taken over by the Department of Transport as an alternate to Vancouver International Airport for both domestic and international flights next April”. However, there were no immediate plans for improving runways or passenger facilities.

In fact, as soon as the DoT took over in April 1958, they announced plans for a new terminal facility, including customs and air traffic control.  They also made space available in the old RCAF hangars for aircraft storage. Then, in May, as part of a federal government public works program, $750,000 was allocated for extension of the main runway to 7000 feet, together with re-surfacing.  This would make it capable of handling the biggest commercial aircraft of the time, such as the Bristol Britannia.

Tenders for the new passenger terminal (in Hangar Two) were invited in January 1959, with an estimated cost of $55,000. By the time the building permit was issued in April, the estimate had risen to $92,000

The airport facilities continued to be developed after its 1959 renovations – a control tower went into operation in 1960, and high-intensity runway and approach lighting was planned for 1961.

Aerovive, the first commercial aircraft repair and inspection facility was opened in 1959 by Bert Green, providing employment for up to 10 persons. Speaking to the local Rotary club in November, Green boosted the airport’s potential growth. In just seven weeks his company had nearly doubled the floor space it needed, and he described the presence of about 400 light aircraft in BC, most of which had previously been serviced in Vancouver, but were being squeezed out by crowded conditions. He described the potential at Abbotsford as at least the equal of Sea Island.

Vancouver continued to get busier, the terminal and facilities became more and more in need of updating or replacement, and the bridges to Sea Island were completely inadequate. There were plans to restrict flying by light-aircraft because of the dangers of them mixing with jet traffic. General aviation was being forced to move either to Langley or Abbotsford or Pitt Meadows, because Boundary Bay had been completely closed to aviation since the war. In January 1961 Grant McConachie, President of CPA, described Vancouver as “a shacktown in the international community of jet-age airports”. He predicted a shift of major airline traffic to Abbotsford, unless the Vancouver Airport was sold to Ottawa.  Vancouver ratepayers were about to vote on whether to sell their stake in the airport for $2.75 million or to raise at least $12 million to build a modern jet-age terminal. McConachie could foresee only losses if the City chose to build a new terminal itself.  The Mayor of Vancouver agreed and recommended the airport’s sale.

Fraser Valley MP Harold Hicks advocated the benefits of Abbotsford Airport unstintingly, both in his regular column in the local newspaper and in Parliament.  He considered it “time that traffic be directed to Abbotsford”. He could not see why the Dominion Government would want to buy from Vancouver when they already owned outright the airport in Abbotsford.  The fog issue was still prominent – 52 flights had been diverted in December 1960, nine of which were giant DC-8s. Hicks imagined the great things that could be done if that $2.75 million was directed to Abbotsford instead.  Bert Green, owner of Aerovive, suggested one idea – “The Air Show”. It would be a natural location, with no congestion of population, and would provide manufacturers an opportunity to display their equipment. “I’d be all for it” said Harold Luesley, the airport manager. Mr. Hicks suggested that a local service club might take up the challenge.

But, as things turned out, Vancouver voters did opt for the City to sell its stake in their airport. The DoT bought it in 1962 for $2.5 million, and then built a new terminal – completed in 1968 at a cost of $30 million, and the airport has continued to grow and develop ever since.

It would be another four decades almost, before regular airline traffic started to develop at Abbotsford.

From Aug 3rd to 22nd  of 1961 the RCAF Golden Hawks were based at Abbotsford. They practiced regularly for shows at English Bay, Kelowna, Victoria, Comox and the PNE. This was significant because it was the first time that an RCAF display team had been based at Abbotsford instead of at Sea island, and it must have made people think hard about having a show in Abbotsford.  The remarks by Hicks, Green and Luesley in January show there was clearly an appetite for an airshow in Abbotsford, and it may have been a common topic for speculation. But maybe more importantly, there was also an opportunity, because the Vancouver airshow was no longer viable. Although they are now generally forgotten, there were airshows as part of Air Force Day, based out of Sea Island every year right through the 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1950s there were a number of civilian shows as well, and they were hugely successful.

The Aero Club of BC planned a civilian airshow for June of 1950, in conjunction with Air Force Day, and it was to be the first civilian show at Vancouver for 13 years. However, it was cancelled because of difficulties with the old Marpole Bridge. The Air Force event went ahead anyway, and attracted 20,000 people. Later, when presented with a detailed traffic plan, the Airport Board relented, and a free admission, all-Canadian show was re-scheduled for September 3rd. It was a civilian show, but it included RCAF jets anyway, from 442 Reserve Squadron.

Air Force Day 1954 was in June, but flying was cancelled because of weather. For the civilian show in August, the RCAF planned a cavalcade of 15 jets (Sabres, CF-100s and T-33s) with one of the five CF-100s attempting to break the sound barrier for the first time on the west coast. A huge attendance created the biggest traffic jam yet on the Marpole bridge.

1958 was special because the airshow was a Centennial event – to celebrate the 1858 creation of British Columbia. Attendance was estimated at 100,000, with another 20,000 on the other side of the airport for the RCAF event. Undoubted star of the show was the Tupolev Tu-104  — simply because it was Russian, with real, live Russians aboard. The Russian pilot was given the chance to take the controls of the new Boeing 707, and he was tremendously impressed by its easy handling. Later the 707 pilot flew in the Tu-104, but was denied even the right seat, being told it needed two pilots at all times. He concluded that “ may be a good airplane, but for my money it’s obsolete’. The highlight of the RCAF event was a series of slow passes by an RAF Vulcan bomber.

The last civilian airshow at Vancouver was in 1959. It celebrated 50 years of aviation in Canada. Its cost was underwritten up to $5,000 each by the City of Vancouver and by industry, and the only revenue sources were a 50c/car parking fee and program sales, with attendance being free. Aircraft expected to attend included Russia’s new Tu-114; two RAF Handley Page Victors and a Mark 4 Comet; a Boeing 707; a Douglas DC-8; several USAF B-52s, F-104 Starfighters, F-101 Voodoos, F-102 Daggers and F-89 Scorpions; RCAF CF-100s, and the RCAF Golden Hawks Sabre-jet display team. A Bomarc missile, for static display, arrived in the belly of a USAF C-124 transport. Attendance was reported at 120,000 with another 300,000 crowding the shores of English Bay for the RCAF displays.   These numbers are probably not reliable (the population of the whole Province in 1959 was only 1.567 million people, and the idea that over a quarter of the entire population was there watching the show seems a bit stretched), but what is undeniable was the catastrophic effect on road traffic. Parking for 12,000 cars was provided, and buses ran from Oakridge Centre, but it was clear that this could not go on.

The RCAF continued its Sea Island Open Day displays for years, but there would never be another airshow at Vancouver Airport.  And that is why, in January 1961, Bert Green suggested “The Air Show” for Abbotsford, not just ‘an air show’.   Vancouver Airport was no longer available, but the public demand for an airshow continued. The opportunity for Abbotsford was obvious. Circumstances had created the conditions and opportunity, and all that remained was for a suitable organization to grasp that opportunity.

Abbotsford would have to wait until 1997 for the start of regular airline services (by Westjet), but in the meantime other activity increased slowly. To facilitate development, the DoT arranged for new ‘Abbotsford Airport Zoning Regulations’ to be approved under Order in Council and the Authority of the Aeronautics Act.

Aerovive had been the first commercial operation to start up at Abbotsford, and possibly their most remembered achievement was to completely rebuild what was one of only two remaining Supermarine Stranraer flying boats. It had arrived at Abbotsford by road, very early one morning under police escort, being towed on its own beaching gear. Rebuild took seven months and $40,000. Then on June 10th 1962 it flew again, for 40 minutes to the Fraser River at Sea Island. Take-off was from a specially constructed detachable 4-wheel dolly, from which it lifted off when flying speed was reached. The dolly continued along the runway. Pilot was Slim Knights. In late 1961 Aerovive bought Hangar Number Three from Crown Assets, but at least some of the Stranraer work had been done in Hangar One.  By 1964 Hangar Three was occupied by Sumas Air Services, (was that just a name change or an actual different company?)  In 1964 the building was sold to Skyway Air Services.

Skyway Air Services had already bought Hangar One in April 1961 for use as a base for timber and crop spraying operations. Skyway was based in Langley and was a leading developer and operator of aerial spraying and water bombing capabilities, and were mostly using Grumman Avengers at that time.

Another new company in 1960 was Abbotsford Air Services; started by Herb Porter, with one Cessna 150 airplane, to provide flight instruction and charters. His business grew quickly, and by 1961 had already occupied a succession of four locations in the terminal building (Hangar Two). He was ready to hire a Chief Instructor, and he found John Spronk in Penticton. (A year later he would be ready for a whole new building – which was ready shortly before the first airshow in August 1962.)

John Spronk had come to Canada from Holland after a successful career in the Dutch Air Force. He had trained on Tiger Moths and Harvards, before moving to Spitfires and then Gloster Meteors. He had reached the rank of Captain, and further advancement would mean desk-work and much less flying, if any. His air force superiors and colleagues, and his wife, all urged him to stay with the air force, but he had decided they would move to Canada, where he could convert his qualifications, and then continue a civilian flying career. John and his wife Patricia moved to Vancouver in 1958, and after obtaining the appropriate licences and ratings, moved first to Kelowna, where John worked for Cariboo Air Charter, and then Penticton, where he was CFI at the new flying school. He joined the flying club, and became a Director in March of 1961. Forty years later John described his first visit to Abbotsford, and the subsequent formation of the Abbotsford Flying Club:

My first landing at Abbotsford airport is etched in my memory – it was February 1961. My boss and I were returning to Penticton, (where I was CFI) after completing some Flying School business in Vancouver.

 The weather forecast was not good, and the Hope-Princeton highway route would be our only chance of making it through to Penticton. When we reached Hope the weather in my opinion was not suitable to continue. My boss, however, felt we should go on because it was his birthday and he wanted to get home! After some debate, I said: “The right side of the airplane is going back, I don’t know about your side.” I won the argument and we diverted to Abbotsford.

 I could not believe my eyes as we approached. THREE big runways and all kinds of hangars and even a Tower! We were the only aircraft to land that day! The Tower was operational because Abbotsford was the Alternate Airport for Vancouver! We couldn’t get over the fact, that nobody was using it. Howie Williams, the Tower’s only Air Traffic Controller cleared us to land. (Howie later became a friend and supporter of the Flying Club).

 In April of that year, Herb Porter flew in to Penticton and offered me the job of CFI for his brand new flying school at Abbotsford. He was looking for a suitable instructor and I had been recommended to him. I accepted that offer as my family wanted to return to the Lower Mainland anyway.

 The new company was called Abbotsford Air Services, and was located on the second floor of Hangar 2. It was the first civilian flying school at Abbotsford. I started with them in July ’61, and soon after that met the local pilots: Butch Merrick, John McGowan, Hank Hamm, Chuck Dennett, Monty Shore and others. Most of them were members of the Chilliwack Flying Club. This made me wonder why there was no club at Abbotsford.

 One thing led to another and we canvassed other interested people, with the idea of forming a local Flying Club. A meeting was called on the 14th of November 1961 in the terminal facility of Hangar 2. About two dozen attended. After some discussion the group was very much in favour, and the decision was made to go ahead! The name was going to be: The Abbotsford Flying Club! An election followed and Monty Shore became Secretary/Treasurer, John McGowan and Hank Hamm, were directors at large and I had the honour of becoming the first President. ……..   In a typical gesture, Butch Merrick stood up and immediately paid his dues, making him the first paid up member of the Club!   ….

 John was clearly struck by the lack of activity at Abbotsford, but he would not have been immediately aware that it was only three years since the DoT started to rent hangar space to individuals and for commercial activity. Some of the people he met, who had recently started to store their airplanes there, and would soon help form the Abbotsford Flying Club, were already members of the Chilliwack Flying Club, which was large and active and had existed since the 1930s.    Of the other Members of that first AFC Board: Monty Shore had spent the war serving on convoy duty with the RCN and had reached the rank of Lt. Commander. He continued for many years with the naval reserve. He was an Abbotsford Electrical Inspector and General Contractor.  John McGowan had served in the RCAF and had trained on Liberators at Abbotsford and Boundary Bay. By 1961 he was a very successful Motor Dealer in Abbotsford.  Hank Hamm operated the Esso Service Station in Abbotsford and was a keen sky-diver.

Abbotsford Air Services would have provided the first focus point for general aviation activity at Abbotsford. So it was really only around the time that Spronk arrived that the necessary elements and conditions for the formation of a flying club came together. As CFI at AAS, and with his background and contacts, he was one of those key elements. Once the ingredients did come together, it did not take long for that core group of pilots and student pilots to agree on forming a club.

John Spronk arrived at Abbotsford Air Services in July, and he was there during the extended visit by the Golden Hawks in August.  Seeing them practice day after day, and going off to perform shows elsewhere, would have undoubtedly made everyone at the airport think about the idea of having a show right here in Abbotsford.

The next step in this story is about the decision to start the airshow. The Rotary Club of Abbotsford was looking for a fund-raising project, and one of their members, John Beldam, who was also a member of the new Flying Club, suggested an air show. He probably voiced the same suggestion at both the AFC and the RCA.

W.J. (Bud) Lloyd, another Rotary member, had been interested in putting on an air show for some time.  He received encouragement from Frank Bernard, who had been involved in staging the shows at Vancouver, was on the board of the BC Aviation Council, and later maintained that the Abbotsford show basically was a continuation of the Vancouver shows. Bud and his son, Jerry, met with John Spronk, and agreed to pitch the idea for the show to the Rotary Executive meeting of March 15th 1962.

At the meeting, they talked about the RCAF Golden Hawks display team, which everyone had seen practicing at Abbotsford the previous summer; the Lockheed Neptune maritime patrol aircraft; the F101 Voodoo supersonic fighter-bomber, and the Grumman Albatross Search and Rescue flying boat. With a vote of 9 ‘for’, and 1 ‘against’, the decision was made to stage a show on August 11th and 12th 1962.

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