Aerial history

The airport in Terrace, BC has, and will, play an important role in the local area.

  • Nov. 12, 2013 7:00 a.m.

By LES WATMOUGH

Early 1940 Terrace was a small river and railroad town right where it sits today. There was no road outside, no airport, no need for either one.

Then came December 1941. Domination of the Pacific became the  vital issue and air was the best protection available. But there were no airports or infrastructure on the coast of B.C.  or Alaska. Airports needed to be built, a list that included Port Hardy, Sandspit, Ketchican, Alaska, Anchorage, Watson Lake, Stewart, Dease Lake, Smithers and Terrace.

Construction of the Terrace airport started early 1942 and finished in 1943, commissioned as an active airforce base with Hurricanes and Spitfires and possibly some American types, offering protection to the west coast of Canada and southern Alaska.

There was great secrecy of all military operations at that time so details were not available. The airport was decommissioned in 1945 and given to the federal transport department.

This was the time, 1944, of the army mutiny in Terrace, but the airport was airforce and did not participate. In fact they were supplied some heavy armour to repulse the “enemy.”

There were no commercial activities while the airforce was in control.

There was one design plan for all bases built at this time. Paved runways, all 4800 feet long, necessary taxi ways and hangars. Everything was well done to engineering standards of the time.

Runway configuration was triangular, with one runway into the prevailing wind.

The hangars would hold DC 3s  or better, nothing was spared. Any plane that could land or get off the 4800 foot runways would fit in the hangar.

Solid fir beams, two- inch planks for the roof, cement floors. There were two hangars and the usual weather stations and a control tower. A big project.

Residences (barracks) were built and used until 1962.

After the war, the Terrace airport was the prize in a heavy weight competition between Queen Charlotte Air and CP Air over the allocation of the air route from Vancouver to Prince Rupert.

CP Air won, with the support of friends in Ottawa, and ran the profitable route until Prime Minister Brian Mulroney went with the Open Skies disaster.

With that program, Ottawa overlooked the fact that air, and the airports, were a national interest, a series of transport sites that linked the country together, just as the CP Rail did.

This national structure was torn apart and the pieces given to every idiot that wanted a piece.

Now YVR Vancouver makes millions every quarter and Smithers withers away.

There were a lot of different, commercial passenger flight operators – CP Air, Air Canada, Queen Charlotte Air, Pacific Western, Trans Provincial. Even I had a two bit operation, Chisel Charter.

The latter days have seen Hawkair, Jazz, some segments of CP and Air Canada and soon, WestJet.

There were some periods during which  the airport had flying schools. There were two years with schools in the 60’s. Graduates include, but are not restricted to, Ray Sande Lloyd Johnstone, Don Hull and Jack Sharples. The next year graduates included, John Sarich, Joe Schultzic, myself, two unnamed brothers and Ton Stewart.

Maintenance of the airport declined due to federal budget cuts.

Until 1955 all three segments of the runways were used. In 1961 two runways were deemed unusable and only one active one remained.

One of the hangars was put up for sale and was purchased by the Town of Smithers and is still used as their number one ice palace. Terrace declined a similar opportunity. The remaining hangar, which was still very usable,  burned to the ground in 1970 destroying several airplanes.

The older admin buildings were rebuilt, then expanded to be what you use today. Remarkable planning, by Ottawa, went into that design. In the centre of the most remarkable scenery in the north, when seated in the restaurant, looking out the only available window, you see-what? The Sleeping Beauty? No. The parking lot full of rental cars.

What does the Smithers rest area offer? The vast entire Hudson Bay Mountain, a classic vista of our northern mountains.

For light air planes the tie-down area was accessed by turning off the taxiway, making a 180 degree turn, coming up to the tie downs.

But there was a utility pole at the apex of that 180 turn that did not offer any protection to the wings of any aircraft making that turn.

The pole had no reason to be in that particular spot, unless it was designed to clip wing tips of student pilots. It worked well for that.

The airport was always groomed for commercial traffic. It was seldom friendly to small private planes. And it served the commercial trade well in spite of the inclement winter weather.

The Terrace airport won many awards for being the second most difficult one in the province, always losing out to Castlegar. This was no fault of designers, managers or other sundry employees. It was because of the weather and Little Herman Mountain.

The weather did not like air planes and did its very best to cripple or kill them with early snow, heavy fog served up in an instant, early snow, heavy and wet or fast frozen.

Little Herman was a low mountain right on the glide path to the main active runway and at a pinch point of elevation that caused real problems and some deaths. It became necessary to remove the trees from its top to increase the clearance by 90 feet that was needed.

This was done, the trees were taken down, but the young trees were left, and have been growing two feet a year for 15 years and are eating up the critical clearance.

The airport has kept up with new technology. It is a safe airport, and serves the new turboprop types very well and has decreased the missed landings very considerably, making landings rather routine and completely safe.

In Mulroney’s Open Skies realm the jargon was “the best airport will get the business; the others will die.”

Terrace is the only airport for 150 miles, so if Smithers is better, drive 150 miles to access air travel.

Right. As my very good friend Jim Wood said about reports made into regulations – “garbage in, garbage out.”

Les Watmough, who passed away Oct. 27, was a former Kitimat-Stikine regional district director and pilot who had a keen interest in local history. This was submitted shortly before his death.

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