Shiny new terminal just the latest in a long line of Calgary airports

Calgary's aviation history has been anchored in numerous hangars and terminals. As YYC prepares to open a new terminal which doubles the size of the airport, it's time to look back at where flying has been based in Calgary over the years.

Opening an airport terminal is old hat in this town

Cpt. Fred McCall lands near Bowness Park, August 1919 (Glenbow Museum)

Calgary, you are cleared for takeoff!

In just a few short days, the new international terminal at our city's airport will fling open its gates. Its been a heck of a long time in coming. 

But it's expected the shiny, geothermally-heated, marble-and-glass gateway to the world will give our city a boost.

Airports are often a statement about a city. 

As a city grows and becomes more cosmopolitan, there's usually a push for its airport to keep pace. A sort of welcome mat, where we can show off a bit — impress folks with a bit of razzle-dazzle. 

We here in Calgary have had a lot of airports over the years. We didn't always wing our way into the skies from where the airport is now.

From open fields to grass runways, from drafty shacks to wooden hangars, our city has a colourful history when it comes to the wild blue yonder.

So goggles on! Chocks away! Let's wing our way back in time.

Those magnificent men and their flying machines

Frank Ellis and his airplane "West Wind", 1914 (Glenbow Museum)

As early as 1911, only eight years after the Wright brothers made history at Kitty Hawk, Calgarians were looking to the skies. An American pilot named Didier Masson winged into town to show off the wonders of heavier-than-air machines. 

But it wasn't until 1914 that Calgary got its first proper airfield near Bowness Park — then about ten kilometres west of the city limits. 

Now, 'field' is the key word in that sentence. The runway was literally just a grass landing strip. Our city sported two pilots back then:  Frank Ellis and Tom Blakely. 

They knocked together a biplane made up of scrap parts from a plane that had crashed near Moose Jaw. They called it the "West Wind."

Office of Western Canada Airways at Calgary airfield, 1929 (Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada)

The airfield had no real facilities — apparently the pilots made do with a small shack. But as Calgary grew, so did the public interest in planes, and something better had to be found.

So, in 1928 city council chose a new space for an airport in the southwest.  It was known as the Old Banff Coach Road airport.

The Calgary Aero Club (now the Calgary Flying Club) set up shop there. Local pilots like Fred McCall, W.L. Rutledge and J.E. Palmer took part in an airshow in September of that year.

But it too was just a temporary field on the way to a better location and lasted only about a year. It was known for bad turbulence which was troublesome for those early (and light) aircraft.

Calgary municipal airport (1929-39)

An aerial view of the first Calgary Municipal Airport, 1933, the Renfrew-area airport that preceded the Calgary terminal (City of Calgary Archives)

Enter our city's first real airport.

The city built a new hangar in Renfrew, and Rutledge Air Service moved in. To tell you how much times have changed, it was built just outside of the city. But today that's pretty much the intersection of 13th Avenue and 6th Street N.E. 

More hangars were built there as business increased. You can still see of bit of this history as the Calgary Boys and Girls Club is now located in one of those old hangars.

As the growing city came closer and closer to Renfrew's grass runways, the airport again had to be moved.

And so in 1938,  for $31,126, the city picked up an old homestead just north of the city. It's the place where our current airport now sits.

Here you can see before and after images of the first Calgary Municipal Airport as well as its replacement. 

The municipal hangar (1939-1948)

Canada declared war on Germany on September 10, 1939. Calgary's new airport, now equipped with a proper paved runway and a new hangar, opened on September 25th. The war was boom time for aviation in our city.

The federal government took over the operation formally in 1940, and a British Commonwealth Air Training Plan base opened.

We've found some newspapers from 1947-48, some petrified potatoes and some old wooden baskets down thereRob Beckei, Condor Aircraft

A couple of years later, the U.S. military set up shop on the west side of the runway. American planes were repaired and refuelled there on their way to Alaska and on to the Soviet Union. At the same time, the airport saw daily flights for paying passengers to Edmonton and Lethbridge.

And believe it or not, the original wooden hangar still exists on YYC's southern edge and it remains linked with aviation.

Condor Aircraft runs its operations from the historic building. Its Art Deco exterior could easily be used in a movie, set in the Second World War.

Condor's production manager Rob Beckei said the hangar might not be designated as a heritage building but there's a lot of character in it. There are some original doors and offices still in daily use.

There may still be some secrets tucked away. For example, he said some curios were uncovered a couple of years ago in a basement storage area.

"We have found some World War Two helmets. We've found some newspapers from 1947-48, some petrified potatoes and some old wooden baskets down there," said Beckei.

But this hangar's run as Calgary's airport was short-lived.

The stopgap (1948-1956)

After the war, the military left. The now empty hangars were taken over by commercial aviation. Two old wooden hangars built by the Americans were joined together by adding a small addition, and presto! Calgary had a new air terminal.

The "tarpaper shack" as it was known was immediately out of date.

Perhaps the civic embarrassment over this "new" terminal explains why it's so difficult to find pictures of the place.

Still, air travel was becoming a thing for Calgarians. Suddenly it was possible to fly direct to Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto.

But this airport was itself only a layover to something bigger and better for a growing western city.

McCall field (1956-1977)

An overview of the terminal at McCall Field in Calgary, 1963. (City of Calgary Archives)

The new airport opened in 1956 and was later renamed after local First World War flying ace, Fred McCall.

American carriers started flying into Calgary, linking it with cities in the Pacific Northwest. Suddenly Calgary was on the map. And the likes of prime minister John Diefenbaker, American crooner Bing Crosby and even the Vatican ambassador passed by the baggage claim.

In 1961, regular jet air services reached Calgary and — get this — Canadian Pacific Airlines started flying from Calgary to Amsterdam in 1962.

People wait at the outdoor viewing area at McCall Field. (Glenbow Museum)

This terminal was even the scene of a hijacking drama in 1971.

But the arrival of jets meant more planes and more people. Although it was expanded five times, after 21 years the McCall terminal was obsolete and passengers needed a new airport building. 

YYC (1977-present day)

Early days of Calgary's current air terminal, YYC. (City of Calgary Archives)

By this time, the federal government had learned a lesson. When the new $130 million state-of-the-art terminal building opened in 1977, (basically the airport as we know it today), it was purposely constructed with future additions in mind.

The number of passengers doubled and then quadrupled. Smaller expansions just wouldn't do.

In 1996, there was a major addition –  where you can currently find WestJet – and then in 2014, we got a massive new north-south runway.

That brings us to today.

The new international terminal which is about to open is almost like a whole new airport. But it is linked to the 1977 structure, which itself is also going to continue morphing with more renovations are planned.

And given the $1.6 billion price tag, it seems Calgary's airport might just have found its "forever" home. 

(The book "History of Canadian Airports" by author T.M. McGrath was used for some of the background details in this article.)

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.