Early years of the AFC
by Steve Stewart
The inaugural meeting of the new club had been on November 14th 1961. There were over 24 people in attendance; a President, Vice President, Secretary/Treasurer, and directors were elected; and the next meeting was set for December. For the first few months, the meetings would continue to be held in the waiting room of the Terminal Building (Hangar 2). On December 12th the meeting ‘was attended by about 35 members which was a very good turnout considering the ‘white weather’ of that day, the business went off very well and afterwards a really interesting film was shown on high speed flight and plane designs. All in all it was a very good meeting.’ Films on aviation subjects were a regular feature of meetings. Everyone was keen to learn. Although there were a number of experienced pilots in the new club, a lot of the founding members were still working on licences, and their progress was reported regularly. The January 1962 Newsletter reported that five members had soloed since the previous meeting,; Bill Shandley had also passed his written test for PPL, and Ted Koppen was ‘the proud possessor of a spanking new private licence.’. There were also seven new members. Monty Shore was not a new pilot, but his news, early in 1962, was that he had become one of the few people ever to fly the AeroCar.
It didn’t take long for the idea of an air show to come up. How it happened is described elsewhere. But suffice to say, by March, the decision had been made. The AFC, with some funding and help from the Rotary Club, would launch an event that would become world famous, and grow in ways that no-one could have anticipated at the time. From March through to August the joint committee of the AFC and RCA met repeatedly to hammer out details, send invitations, arrange insurance, fencing, food, etc etc. and as the date approached, more and more members became directly involved. It would be an all-out effort for the club – everyone did something to help ensure success.
In the meantime, winter had ended, the weather had improved and members were ready for fly-outs. The first ever fly-out, in May, was to Hudson Island. This appears to be a privately owned island, 2,500 feet long with a 1,900 foot gravel airstrip. It is just south of Thetis Island. The next trip was to the Penticton Air Show in June. An entire package deal was arranged – a single payment of $16 covered air transport, accommodation, food and the show. It was less than a year since John and Patricia Spronk had moved from Penticton, and the visiting club was well received by their hosts. In our archives, we still have three minutes of video from the trip and the show.
June was also notable for the departure flight of the Supermarine Stranraer from Abbotsford, of which we again have some video. Glenn Matthews, and possibly other members, had worked on the aircraft while employed at Aerovive.
By May, the club meetings were being held in the Armouries building. This was the old Officers Club from RCAF days. It became the Skyline Club, and would become the venue for many memorable evenings during future airshows. In May the club held a dance. And they would have another in November.
The story of the first airshow is told elsewhere. It was a great success, and that paved the way to have another in 1963. It also brought a net sum of $255.43 into the club. This was a significant amount at the time. Right from the start the airshow was international, and attracted as much participation from Washington aviators as from those in British Columbia. The stars had included Mark and Grace Hoskins, both flying Ryan monoplane trainers. Jack Brown, publisher of the Northwest Aviator, was also a major supporter. In November a flight of three Cessna 172s took members to Seattle on a mission to thank the Hoskins’ and Jack Brown.
The club’s visibility and activities had attracted a continuous stream of new members throughout the year. The membership roll in December amounted to 70. At the AGM John Spronk passed the chair to newly-elected President Bill Shandley.
After its initial surge, the membership roll stayed at something less than a hundred throughout the 1960s. But of course not everyone attended meetings regularly – only 25 out of 70 had showed up for the 1962 AGM in December. And membership dues could be paid any time to the end of March. The target for 1963 was 100, but by May the paid-up number was 68, and it rose to 83 in June. A similar situation prevailed early in 1964, with only 29 people at the March meeting, a newsletter membership circulation of 100, and only 53 paid-up. By June the paid-up number rose to 75, but meeting attendance was still low, and there were newsletter appeals to support club activities.
For the first few years membership was open to anyone who applied, but by 1968 applicants had to get through an interview first. Some years later there were moves to set a maximum limit on the number of members, and to only admit pilots. This would eventually lead to the idea of Associate Members.
It’s understandable that not all members attended all the meetings or supported all the activities – because there were so many. In 1963, in addition to the monthly meetings and everything that had to be done for the airshow: there was a fly-out in March to Seattle again, involving seven aircraft; Chuck Dennett and Bernie Bennion flew to Mexico and back; members attended fly-ins in Comox, Twin Harbors, Ancortes, and others; There was a navigation contest and breakfast fly-in organized for June, but the weather was awful and only the breakfast happened (attendance 160); a corn-roast in August; a dance in December; three members bought aircraft; members continued to gain qualifications; and in September, J. Beshuisen departed in Cessna 150 NSC to Florida and possibly Bahamas. Hurricane Flora changed his plans. The newsletter reported him in Texas and heading home, and described his trip as great example of inexperienced pilot in light aircraft being able to undertake long trips. Flora was one of deadliest hurricanes in recorded history, so he had made a good decision. However, June had already seen the first fatality of a member. Robert Ford had joined September 1962. His death was described as ‘very unfortunate accident’ in the newsletter. The DoT report card is very brief, and appears critical of his decision to fly into weather over Allison pass – stall during attempted 180 degree steep turn, three fatalities, aircraft destroyed. On a more positive note, 1963 was also the year of the green club jackets. They cost $13.91 including taxes, and could be picked up at Bennion’s Pharmacy.
The 1964 newsletters indicate a similarly packed schedule of fly-outs, visits, a spot landing contest , the Pendleton air races, Halloween party, etc etc and the newsletter started to cite the one-time popular radio show ‘Let George do it’ (it was a private-eye drama that ran from 1946 to 1954.) Members were asked not to just ‘let George do it’. There was lots to do, partly because by April the club had secured its own room in the terminal building above the reception lounge. It needed decorating, furniture and signage. Then for August there was a more permanent move to a room provided by Sumas Air Services for a rental of $30 per month. This was great location, with direct access to ramp, and a view across to Mount Baker. The single key was held at the Tower. It would be the club’s home until the move to the old fire-hall in 1968.
The fly-out for breakfast to Victoria in September was the first ever subsidized flight – it introduced what became known as the ‘flying incentive’. Pilots could be reimbursed 25% of their cost.
Some other 1964 events of note included: Doris Giles was selected as one of four women and five men for the Canadian team at the world parachuting championships in West Germany; Millie Watson completed her private pilot training under the scholarship provided by the club; there was a new airstrip built on Savary Island; the BCAC started to offer its aviation map of BC at a price of $5; the fully aerobatic Citabria was available at a Canadian price $5,250 inc fed sales tax; the federal government planned to increase duties again on all aircraft not manufactured in Canada; the Rotary Club pulled out of further airshow involvement, but their place was quickly filled by the EAA Chapter 85, which became equal partner with the AFC.
The club was clearly forging ahead on all fronts, and we can surmise that the collective vision was expansive. Nothing has survived of discussions around the vision for the club. However, we know from newspaper reports, that the vision for the airshow was being boosted continuously. Moreover, the airshow was an operation of the flying club, with the same people being involved in both. So it is safe to assume a similar expansive approach. This is supported by the range and quantity of new activities the club took on, and it is indicated explicitly in the Constitution that was approved by Victoria in June of 1963. The club’s new Constitution went much further than what the club was already doing. The ‘objects of the Society’ included everything from owning, leasing and operating aircraft, facilities, airports, hangars, depots, etc to promoting aviation in general, raising money in every possible way, and providing training. Everything listed was to be for the mutual benefit of all members. The only constraint mentioned in the ‘objects’ was that training would not include ab initio training. This constraint was significant, because the club had already become a member of the Royal Canadian Flying Clubs Association. It signified that the club would not be like many other flying clubs, where their main purpose was specifically to train new pilots. To have included such an object would have put the club into competition with existing flight schools at the airport. Abbotsford Air Services had been extremely supportive to the club’s formation and to the airshow. John Spronk was their CFI until the end of 1963, when he moved to Skyway Air Services. Herb Porter, the owner of AAS was one of the club’s founding members. Barry Marsden of SAS demonstrated water bombing regularly at the airshow. In fact, the club maintained excellent relations with both AAS and SAS, with members using their rental aircraft for the majority of club flying – even after the club bought its first Cessna 150 in 1968.
For the first few years the club’s finances were quite modest, and despite the aspirations to own and operate fleets of aircraft, airport facilities etc, the income streams were limited to annual dues, airshow revenues, and incidental revenues from other events such as pancake breakfasts. But the only fixed expense commitment (from August 1964) was the $30 per month rent on the club meeting room, and as required by the Constitution, the financial resources that were available, were spent to the benefit of members and to promote aviation in general. In 1963 the club earned a net revenue from the airshow of $900, and immediately spent most of it to support a glider being built by Air Cadets, and to provide an Air Ranger pilot training scholarship. In the years prior to the 1967 Centennial airshow, the club’s revenue from the show never rose above a thousand dollars. For 1966 airshow revenue was $471.46, and at the end of the year the club’s total equity was $4,690.93, all as cash in various forms.
In 1964 the club had started to subsidise the cost of members’ flying. The idea was to encourage pilots to participate in club fly-outs, and to take other members with them. The Board would announce that a certain fly-out would qualify for a particular level of subsidy, and afterwards the pilot could submit their receipts in order to receive a partial re-imbursement. The qualifying criteria could also include attendance at a preceding general meeting. In March 1967 the program became more general and was dubbed the ‘flying incentive’. The discussion on this had started a year earlier. For 1967 each qualifying member was covered up to 20 flying hours, and the incentive value ranged from $2.50 to $3.50 per hour. This was a significant contribution to the normal cost. Aircraft could be rented from either Abbotsford Air Services or from Skyway Air Services, and it appears that Skyway also gave its own discount of 10% to club members. The net result was that a Cessna 150 could be flown for as little as $7.50 per hour. Members had to apply to qualify for the incentive at the start of each year. To qualify, they had to be signed off as having passed a test flight, and they were expected to have supported club activities and attended meetings (missed no more than three in previous year). The cost of the subsidy was billed directly by the provider to the club. The dollar amounts and hours would change each subsequent year as necessary.
The club and its finances were changed forever by the 1967 centennial airshow. Its annual airshow net income jumped from hundreds to thousands. The $6,103.35 received at the end of 1967, enabled purchase of the club’s first aircraft, at the end of 1968. Also in 1968 the club moved into the old fire-hall. And the previously happy airshow partnership with the EAA would break down in acrimony.
Times were changing. Acquisition of a significant annual income, aircraft, and other assets, would lead to developments and issues that simply didn’t exist previously.