Second World War prompts airport construction

And now it’s the busiest airport in the region

BC AVIATION MUSEUM PHOTO                                This Hawker Hurricane, sitting after a particularly tough landing, is one of a squadron stationed here during the Second World War.

BC AVIATION MUSEUM PHOTO This Hawker Hurricane, sitting after a particularly tough landing, is one of a squadron stationed here during the Second World War.

The Second World War brought many changes to Terrace but none more so than the construction of an airbase at what is now the Northwest Regional Airport.

Although far removed from the European battlefield, B.C.’s northwest coast was close enough to the Pacific theatre of war that military installations were established to defend Prince Rupert and an armoured train put into service between that coast city and Terrace should there be an attempt at a Japanese invasion.

For Terrace that meant acting as a second line of defence, resulting in an influx of army personnel and in the spring of 1943, the start of construction of a Royal Canadian Air Force station.

It was to be the home of two squadrons, one of single-engine, single-seat Hawker Hurricane fighters of the type that saw duty during the Battle of Britain and a bomber squadron flying American-built two-engine Venturas.

Both squadrons were initially stationed in Alaska,, flying with American aircraft before arriving in Terrace in late fall 1943 only to discover half-completed facilities and a wait until living quarters and other buildings were complete.

The squadrons flew as much as they could during the winter of 1943-1944 and when the weather was too bad, some aircraft were dispatched to Smithers so pilots could get in enough hours in the air.

Despite the intentions for a robust airfield in Terrace, the threat of a Japanese invasion diminished sufficiently by the spring of 1944 that the two squadrons were ordered to leave and the facility was transformed into one of a string of air force staging fields to fly personnel and equipment from the southern interior up to Prince Rupert.

Transferred to the federal Department of Transport in 1946, flying activity was low enough that in 1949, winter maintenance of runways and facilities was ceased.

Many of the air force-era buildings were either torn down or moved off for other purposes. A hangar, for instance, ended up being used in Smithers as an arena.

Consistent activity resumed again in 1951 when Alcan began its massive project to construct hydro-electric facilities at Kemano to power an aluminum smelter at the brand new company town of Kitimat.

It was not until 1956 that night flights were authorized thanks to the installation of landing lights.

Gradually improvements in both facilities and service took place as the years went on. In addition to regional airlines such as Trans Provincial Airlines with a number of bases around the northwest and north coast, national carrier CP Air flew into Terrace as did Pacific Western Airlines.

As the years went on the names on the sides of the aircraft changed thanks to bankruptcies, mergers and purchases. Trans Provincial, for instance, went out of business in 1991. CP Air was purchased by Pacific Western Airlines and the larger entity became Canadian Airlines International. AirBC also flew into Terrace until it was purchased by Air Canada and eventually became part of the latter’s Jazz brand.

For a time beginning in the 1980s, jet service to Vancouver was the everyday norm at Terrace thanks to 737s being flown by Pacific Western Airlines and Bae-146s being flown by AirBC.

The airport was not the sole preserve of fixed wing aircraft. Okanagan Helicopters, formed in the Okanagan in 1947, first came to Terrace in 1949 to help in surveying a power line route from Alcan’s Kemano hydro-power project to its Kitimat aluminum smelter.

Okanagan, now called Canadian Helicopters, has been here ever since, ending up at the airport in 1964 with Alcan being a consistent customer over the decades. The company opened a $3 million facility there in 2013.

One of the more exotic aircraft in the world, the bulbous-nosed Bristol Freighter also called the airport home for awhile, with four of them brought up by Trans Provincial to service the cargo needs of nothern mines. When Trans Canada folded, former employees formed Hawkair in 1994 and ended up owning two of the Bristols through acquiring them from a British group who originally bought them from Trans Provincial.

The Bristol’s large nose opened up, permitting the loading and unloading of large amounts of cargo, an ideal aircraft for northern B.C. and Hawkair soon established regular contracts to fly gold concentrate from a strip at Bronson Creek to nearby Wrangell, Alaska.

Hawkair even had a large aircraft at one time whose nose cone also opened, a modified DC-4 called a Carvair.

But when the mining industry declined, Hawkair sold its Carvair and parked the one Bristol Freighter it had left and converted itself into a regional passenger carrier offering service to Vancouver by acquiring its first Dash 8-100 in 2000.

At one point Hawkair had bases in Prince Rupert and in Smithers and in northeastern B.C. in addition to Vancouver and, for awhile, even flew to Victoria.

It went through several bankruptcies and ownerships, eventually ending up in the hands of Central Mountain Air before closing for good in late 2016.

If there was one knock against the airport over the years it was the often inclement winter weather which forced airlines to divert aircraft to Prince Rupert, meaning a long bus ride home for passengers once, that is, they got off the ferry from the Digby Island location of the Prince Rupert airport.

The reputation of the airport as being an unreliable facility continued up until 2002 when an instrument landing system was finally installed, allowing aircraft to descend lower and approach closer until pilots had to visually spot the runway. It meant a dramatic drop in the number of cancelled or delayed flights.

A series of new landing lights have also helped turn around the airport’s reputation.

The landing system came just three years after the federally-owned facility was turned over to a local society made up of the City of Terrace, the Kitimat-Stikine regional district, the Terrace and District Chamber of Commerce and the Kitimat Chamber of Commerce.

What followed has been a steady series of changes for a more comfortable passenger experience as passenger numbers have increased.

But from consistent if moderate growth, traffic accelerated from 139,193 passengers in 2012 to 177,294 the year after followed by 2014’s 253,368 passengers which is the current annual record.

A combination of BC Hydro’s Northwest Transmission Line, the refurbished Rio Tinto (formerly Alcan) smelter at Kitimat and the run up to several planned liquefied natural gas projects contributed to the explosive growth.

But as those projects tailed off, the drop in airport passenger numbers wasn’t as severe as estimated.

The 2016 number was 218,739 with 2017 inching upward to 224,144.

“We thought we might drop to 150,000 but we never fell below 200,000,” says airport general manager Carman Hendry of the past few years.

That kind of passenger number tally convinces him that the Northwest Regional Airport has established itself not only as the largest and busiest airport in the region but also as a vital contributor to the local and regional economy.

(The Terrace Standard acknowledges the work of Terrace resident Ken Newman in preparing a series of histories on aviation in Terrace and area.)

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