Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada's new home set to soar on May 21
'Winnipeg has gone through a cultural renaissance ... we'll be the newest one,' says CEO Terry Slobodian
After two years of construction, Winnipeg's new and expanded Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada is about to spread its wings and take flight — or rather, open its doors and welcome visitors.
The 86,000-square-foot building, set on more than 1.5 hectares (four acres) of land near a bend on Wellington Avenue and aimed at the runways of Winnipeg's international airport, strikes a dramatic pose, with a large glass façade exposing six suspended planes. There are almost two dozen more on the floor.
It's a marked change from the museum's former location, tucked off Ferry Road and hidden at the back end of a strip of old brick hangars. It was a place you had to know was there — you didn't just pass it while out driving.
"The very first thing people see now when they arrive in Winnipeg [from the airport] is our facility. You cannot leave the airport without driving by," said Terry Slobodian, president and CEO of the museum, which has been operating since 1974.
Pre-pandemic, when the airport was running at normal capacity, 4.5 million vehicles per year would drive past the site where the museum now stands, he noted.
It is scheduled to open May 21 for the general public, but one day earlier for those who buy a museum annual pass.
The new location also offers the city's best vantage point for viewing planes arriving and departing the airport.
The observation lounge has a clear line of sight to the main runways, with audio from the air traffic control tower providing a soundtrack, Slobodian said.
The $27-million building itself is part of an overall $48-million price tag for the museum's overhaul project, with 14 immersive galleries and a rich selection of artifacts across two floors of display space.
There is also an exploration gallery where kids can play, interactive zones, a museum store, a snack bar and an archive room.
While the old location could only squeeze in so many exhibits, the new site offers more space for the public to walk, large windows lots of natural light, and places to sit and "admire the aircraft and the beauty of the building," Slobodian said.
The seats also offer a comfortable way to look. There are six aircraft suspended from the ceiling, including a Snowbird Tutor jet and Tiger Moth biplane.
"No one in Canada has more than one aircraft suspended from the ceiling, so it was a huge challenge, but we were able to figure it out," Slobodian said.
There is also an outdoor aviation plaza beside the building, which has a massive door to enable planes to be moved in and out.
The Western Canada Aviation Museum, as it was originally called — before Queen Elizabeth gave it royal designation in 2014 — took off with an idea from its five founders to preserve a rich aviation heritage that includes bush planes, military and commercial aircraft.
The first one they acquired was a Bellanca Aircruiser that lay wrecked and abandoned in the bush of northwestern Ontario.
"Now they're featuring all types of aircraft, which is really, really good," said Steve Pajot, who spent seven years restoring an RCAF CF-104 Starfighter — the first one to fly in Canada — for the museum.
"It's going to be really information to the general public, to see aircraft through the years, how they've progressed."
A Vickers Viscount that has been in the collection since 1982 remains a favourite of visitors, said Slobodian.
It hearkens back to the golden age of commercial travel, when seats were larger, dining was more luxurious, and the windows had cloth blinds.
"It was sophisticated [travel]," Slobodian said.
In addition to its artifacts, the museum seeks to showcase the complex history of travel, trade, and relationships, while also honouring and commemorating the history of Indigenous people involved in aviation, according to its website.
Slobodian believes the depth of storytelling and displays in the new facility will be a valuable contribution to Winnipeg's tourism offerings, which have been enhanced in recent years by the additions of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in 2014 and the Qaumajuq Inuit art gallery last year.
"Winnipeg has gone through a cultural renaissance," he said. "We're one in a series, but we'll be the newest one."
With files from Pat Kaniuga