Air Force Week provides soaring history of U of A

Though Royal Canadian Air Force Week (RCAF) Week only lasted six days in Edmonton, the Air Force’s relationship with the city goes much further back.

RCAF Week was celebrated throughout the city with a variety of events, which commemorated the near century-long history of Edmonton aviation. Several streets in North Edmonton were officially renamed in honour of local aviators and a new exhibit based on the Battle of Britain was introduced at the Alberta Aviation Museum. The week culminated with the unveiling of Ad Astra, a ten-metre high sculpture on Macrae Drive, which represents a “star burst,” an aerobatic manuvere performed by pilots at shows and designed to pay homage to Edmonton’s aviation history.

Rod Macleod, professor emeritus in the University of Alberta’s Department of History, said the link between Edmonton and aviation dates back until the end of the First World War. Notable Canadian pilot Wop May was a student at the university after returning from Europe, and took the first aerial photographs of the campus in 1919.

The RCAF had a much clearer presence in the city at the start of the Second World War, and served as a gateway to the north for air travel in peacetime.

“When the war comes along, there is a very large recruitment effort, and the RCAF took over part of the campus,” Mcleod said. “Corbett Hall became the headquarters of an initial training school, which is where you were sent when you enlisted in the Air Force.”

Once the war was over, the U of A became the base of a RCAF reserve squadron, but that wasn’t all that was left over. A hangar was erected for use as a drill hall during the war, and afterwards became the university gym, which was eventually replaced with the Van Vliet Complex’s Main Gym in 1961.

“I started at the U of A in 1959, when (the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation) was still compulsory for (first-year students),” Macleod said, as he recalled earlier times on campus. “That meant running around in this hangar which was, to put it mildly, not well heated.”

Despite the city’s rich aviation history, Macleod said that many people are unaware of the role the RCAF played in Edmonton, which makes Alberta Aviation Museum’s record of the city’s airborne past so important.

“It has a huge collection of artifacts that are associated with the early aviation history of Edmonton,” Macleod said. “It has a ton of stuff that is connected with all the airborne operations.”

Beyond being the base of an air force unit for many years, Macleod pointed to the importance of Edmonton as a hub for mapping the north after the war. A number of Avro Lancaster Bomber planes were converted into mapping planes, which mapped and photographed the Northern Canada.

The last remaining plane of this class has recently been acquired by the Alberta Aviation Museum, and fundraising has commenced to ship it to Edmonton from New Brunswick where it will be fully restored.

Macleod said that initiatives like RCAF Week help keep Edmonton’s aviation history in the public eye, and that he hopes more people will become familiar with the city’s past.

“I think it’s important to know this history,” Macleod said. “If you don’t, what makes this place different from any other?”

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