Former RAF wartime pilot training base celebrates 75 years

Thousands of Allied pilots learned to fly, families found meaningful work and lifelong romances were kindled at the RAF's No. 31 EFTS De Winton.

'There were thousands, literally thousands of students trained to fly in this plant,' recalls former trainer

Lt.-Gen. Don Laubman enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in September 1940 and served as an instructor at No. 31 EFTS at De Winton before serving overseas in 1943. (RCAF Overseas)

As far as first jobs go, 95-year-old Don Laubman's was as exciting as they come. 

The 19-year-old pilot spent his days spinning through the skies, teaching young men from across the Allied nations how to takeoff, land and maneuver military aircraft at a special wartime base in Alberta.

It was October 1942, and Laubman had just been posted to the Royal Air Force's No. 31 Elementary Flying Training School Station De Winton — which is 10 kilometres northeast of Okotoks.

"It was very new. Rather barren, if I might say so, but very nice," the 95-year-old pilot told CBC's The Homestretch.

"It certainly became very, very busy, very soon."

Three different types of aircraft flew at Station De Winton, including the American Boeing Stearman PT-27 "Kaydets" and the British-designed de Havilland Tiger Moths. (Tom Wallis Collection)

With the Second World War ramping up in Europe, young men from Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand and Canada began arriving at De Winton to learn to take to the skies. 

"This British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was a major, major contribution on Canada's part to the war effort. There were thousands, literally thousands of students trained to fly in this plant," Laubman said.

"You recognized very quickly the importance of what you were doing."

De Winton also attracted young airmen-to-be who had escaped from their homelands in Nazi-held Europe. Different nationalities among the students included Belgian, Dutch, Danish, French, Czechoslovakian and Polish. (Anna Carothers Harder Collection)

'An economic boon'

Laubman, who had roughly six pilots in training under his wing at any given time, said the job was "fascinating."

"We tried to fly each of them at least once a day, so you were busy, busy as can be."

The aerodrome was completed in 1940 and No. 31 EFTS began operating in June 1941. In 1942, the school formally became part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. (Connie Eastcott Bodkin Collection)

But it wasn't just the airmen who felt the excitement buzzing in De Winton's air. 

What began as a military operation quickly evolved to become the new social and economic centre of gravity for surrounding neighbourhoods.

"It was a boon for the whole community," said author Anne Gafiuk. 

"Everyone was short on money, and so they were looking for work," she explained.

"When the word came out that they were going to build an air base on the confluence of the Bow River and Highwood River, people came out and drove to work there."

The Dirsten family was just one of many that established itself at De Winton. (Dirsten Family Collection)

The best time of their life

Besides the shopping and services established nearby, De Winton's frequent officers' dances — organized to keep morale at the base high — were a major attraction.

"The airmen were looking for companionship," said Gafiuk. 

Young ladies from Calgary and Okotoks were often bused to the dances, chaperoned and then promptly returned home, she said.

Connie Eastcott, Evelyn Patterson, Isabelle Hall and Jean O'Leary, all from Okotoks, smile from the flight line at De Winton. (Connie Eastcott Bodkin Collection)

Still, the lively events sparked romances of both the short and the lifelong variety, according to Gafiuk.

"The station diaries indicated that it was not something that was encouraged, but it happened," Gafiuk said. 

"They would dance their nights away. For some of these people that I spoke to, they said it was one of the best times of their life."

Celebrating 75 years

While there is still a private runway and hangar facility, the De Winton base — which closed in September 1944 — is marking the 75th year since its creation.

Wednesday's commemoration will unveil a new permanent roadside memorial at the site, and veterans and community members mark the occasion with flypasts of vintage aircraft and displays of artifacts from days gone by.

Though the school itself only existed for three and a half years, it's left an indelible mark on those who were able to share in its operations. 

These were some of the kitchen staff who worked at De Winton in the mess hall. (Anna Carothers Harder Collection)

"The pride that the Okotokians and the people from De Winton, the people that worked at that base, is still so prevalent when I speak to them," said Gafiuk.

"It was a huge contribution to the British Commonwealth ... but it was also a huge source of pride for those who could not serve in the military to serve as civilians in another capacity," Gafiuk said, in reference to administrative staff, cooks, cleaners and shop owners. 

"They were all part of the war effort."

With files from The Homestretch