RCAF Station Port Hardy
RCAF Station Port Hardy served as a Home War Operational Station from May 14th 1943 to April 30th 1945. In 1939, the B.C. Reconnaissance Detachment completed a survey of coastal sites for airports capable of supporting heavy land based aircraft to supply the need for air defence and emergency airfields. From the point of view of military defence, an aerodrome had been strategically needed on the north end of Vancouver Island for several years. The report identified Port Hardy as sites that could fulfil this requirement. Following this report, authority for the construction at Port Hardy was given as well as for airports at Tofino, Comox, Sandspit, and Masset.
Initially, a site on the peninsula of land north of Port McNeill on Broughton Strait was surveyed and suggested for consideration. However, this site was later discarded in favour of a location closer to Port Hardy, a mile and a half southeast of Thomas Point, on land then held by interests of logger and politician Gordon Gibson and the Provincial Government. Authority to commence construction was given and work started in early 1942. The general contractors for the Port Hardy Airbase were the Vancouver-based General Construction Company, and Hanson Construction, with Hangar #6 actually built by a sub-contractor, Marwell Construction of Edmonton.
The tons and tons of machinery and supplies were landed on a barge grid at Jokerville. The gravel pit behind Fort Rupert was used for runway construction. The Station soon had modern facilities including an RCAF air operations and control tower, two hangars and a large triangle runway. Living quarters were constructed to house the military personnel situated at the Port Hardy RCAF Station as well as a recreational hall, cook house, and mess halls. There was also a company of BC reserve infantry on detachment to provide for ground security. In addition to the airport, a seven mile road was built to Port Hardy for a link to the Post Office, the dock and the 50 bed hospital operated by the R.C.A.F (opened in 1944). Also at this time, a 10 mile gravel road was built to the sea plane base at Coal Harbour.
The first aircraft to use the new station were No. 14 (F) Squadron’s P-40 Kittyhawks which had departed Sea Island (Vancouver) enroute to Alaska in March 1943. Weather delayed the flight for four days at the unfinished airfield at Port Hardy. On 14 May 1943, a permanent detachment of four utility aircraft from No. 122 Squadron Composite Flight was stationed at Port Hardy for communication purposes and remained there until 30 April 1945. On 1 May 1945, these aircraft were replaced with another flight consisting of four aircraft and their crews, with an added search and rescue capability. These aircraft stayed at Port Hardy until the station was closed.
The authority for the establishment of a bomber reconnaissance squadron at this station was given by Western Air Command by Secret Organization Order No. 117 on 28 April 1943 that stated “The construction of R.C.A.F. Station Port Hardy will be sufficiently advanced on 10 December 1943 to accommodate one BR Squadron”. No. 8 (BR) Squadron was assigned to the new RCAF Station Port Hardy, arriving on 11 December 1943, with its Lockheed Vega Ventura G.R. Mark V aircraft. A flight of four Venturas actually arrived at the station earlier on 19 October. No. 8 Squadron had previously served in Alaska from bases at Anchorage, Kodiak, and Nome and had converted to the Ventura GR Mk V in March 1943 at Sea Island. RCAF Port Hardy became fully operational on 3 January 1944, with W/C R.H. Little being appointed Commanding Officer of the station. S/L A. O. Hobbs was officer commanding this Ventura squadron while S/L H.M. Lay was on course at War Staff College, Toronto.
RCAF Station Port Hardy was a large station and was operated by a staff of several hundred men, many of whom were married. Like other airmen in remote areas, they made every effort to relocate their families close by, and a community of cabins and tarpaper shacks sprang up, built by the airmen themselves, on Crown Land close to the station. (Air Force officialdom turned a blind eye to their presence.) They were not elaborate, but sufficient to the needs of the day, probably consisting of two rooms – a bedroom and combination livingroom/kitchen. An outhouse was standard and most had to carry water from the closest spring. The Port Hardy dependant’s village became known as “Jokerville”. They elected a Mayor and had an active social life.
On 3 March 1944, W.A.C. issued Operations Order No. 20 for 8 (BR) Squadron to move to Patricia Bay. The move was carried out on 19 March. On 10March 1944, Organization Order No. 5, entitled “The Revised Defence of Canada, Plan 1945” ordered the disbandment of RCAF Station Port Hardy, but on the same day a further Order #183 qualified the disbandment, stating: “In order to utilize existing facilities and effect economy, the re-organization of certain units in Western Air Command is necessitated. It is the intention to form Coastal Staging Units at Port Hardy, Masset and Sandspit, B.C. Effective 1 April 1944, RCAF Station Port Hardy is to be re-organized as No. 21 Staging Unit.”
With the station disbandment, W/C Little relinquished the station command to F/L G.G. Bruer, the Senior Flying Control Officer at Port Hardy, who administered to the needs of transient aircraft and crews, and their stop-over and refueling needs, as well as maintaining weather reporting services and servicing the radio range previously set up to provide a navigation facility for aircraft flying the B.C. Coast. United States Air Force transport aircraft were quick to utilize the conveniently located Port Hardy airport as a refueling stop for flying supplies to Alaska. This was part of the North-West staging route along which aircraft were flown to the Soviet Union and for logistical support of American forces in Alaska and American projects in Western Canada (North-West Highway System). Pan Am Airline’s aircraft also used Port Hardy for refuelling of the troop carriers.
While these airbases were constructed with a focus on military defence under RCAF direction, careful consideration had been given to the future utilisation of these airbases for post-war commercial and private aviation. In 1945, Pan American Airways stationed staff at Port Hardy Airport to provide services for their aircraft enroute to Alaska on the Staging Route. However, with the introduction of larger aircraft, the stop became unnecessary and PanAm’s staff departed, leaving the RCAF crew to carry on with its staging and search and rescue duties. RCAF Stn Port Hardy was disbanded on 30 April 1945.
In January 1946, the administration of Port Hardy Airport passed from the RCAF to the Department of Transport. It is appropriate that the first civilian Airport Manager, Mr. Ernie Eve, was a pioneer in developing civil and public air transportation, having pioneered in the organization and development of the first passenger and air mail service in Western Canada. The civilian airport was duly licensed on 14 February 1946, as an approved alternate airport and refueling centre to service Amber Airway No. 1 from Seattle, Washington, to Anchorage, Alaska, and later in January 1950 as an alternate on the North Pacific route to Asia.
The first need the MOT faced was to accommodate civilian staff. They did this by converting military barracks into suitable apartment suites to provide married family accommodation. By 1949, there were 16 converted two bedroom suites. By 1970, after additional staff housing was built, there were 30 three-bedroom single or duplex houses. Cook House and Mess Hall unit No. 1 and Barracks Block #3 were retained for single employee accommodation. The use of these facilities was extended to civilian contractors engaged on Airport projects, when they were unable to get accommodation and facilities in town. The barracks block was replaced by four mobile home units in 1972 and was demolished.
Several of the unused RCAF buildings were turned into accommodation for the DOT personnel and eventually were moved to locations nearby for various purposes. The current Port Hardy Legion building was originally the Sergeant’s Mess, the Officers’ Mess was split in two parts and became the St Columba and St Bonaventure Churches and the large barrack hall was dismantled and re-erected as the Avalon School. The hospital located near Glen Lyon Creek was transported by barge to Alert Bay in 1947 and served as their hospital for a number of years.
In 1947, the RCAF air operations and control tower were demolished to provide enlarged reinforced concrete ramp and apron to facilitate aircraft movement and loading operations space. Temporary Terminal facilities for Airlines, passenger telecom, weather service and control tower were first established in Hangar No. I. A heavy snowfall in 1953/54 added too much weight on this flat roofed structure, consequently it was declared unsafe and the airport terminal facilities were transferred to Hangar No. 2. This transfer involved only Airline and passenger facilities. Telecom, Met, and ATC facilities remained in Hangar I until transferred to new Terminal Building in July 1963.
In 1956, the Department of Transport constructed and manned a new control tower at the airport to control the airlines serving the area with connections to Vancouver. Canadian Pacific Airlines had commenced scheduled service in 1946, and later the area would be a port of call for Pacific Western Airlines and Queen Charlotte Airlines. Service to Port Hardy from so called third level airlines and float charter operators has been continuous. P.W.A., Alert Bay Air Services, B.C. Airlines, Air West, Gulf Air, and many more, operating amphibian Beaver, Goose, Cessna and the occasional Otter aircraft, left from Port Hardy to service logging and sport fishing interests on the central B.C. coast. Often times, the aircraft and pilots remained the same, only the paint schemes and logos changed.
Air Accidents on or near RCAF Stn Port Hardy
- On 9 August 1944, the crew of Dak 576 were flying a training mission when they figured they didn’t have enough fuel to return to Pat Bay so they elected to land at Port Hardy. Due to the poor weather, the pilot missed the first approach and went around for another try. He was on the centre line about five miles from touchdown when he ran out of fuel and crash landed in some scrub trees. Unfortunately, the nose of the airplane hit a large boulder and killed the pilot and the navigator Pilot Officer TS Wardlow. Sgt TR Moss, the Wireless Air Gunner survived and was found by a search party several hours later, dazed but not injured.
- At 1115 hrs on 18 July 1944, tragedy struck again when an RCAF Dak 966, filled with armed forces personnel and freight crashed on the airport perimeter just after takeoff on Runway 10-28. There were six persons killed, four seriously injured and four slightly injured in the crash. The hospital in Port Hardy was not yet in operation but they were able to provide assistance and the wounded were taken to the Coal Harbor hospital for treatment.
Post RCAF Crashes
- In 1956, a CP Air DC3 crashed on returning to the airport for emergency landing just after take-off. The toll was 14 killed, 5 rescued.
- In 1959, a PWA C-46 returning to the Airport after take-off due to a mechanical problem, crashed as it attempted to make an emergency landing . The aircraft was a complete write-off but, miraculously, there were no injuries among the 55 passengers and crew despite the fuel tanks having been ruptured.
- On 2 July 1984 – Coval Air Beech 18 crashed on take-off from Runway 11. The pilot and eight passengers were killed.
In 1965, in anticipation of PWA’s eventual use of Boeing 737 jets, the main runway 10-28 was re-paved and strengthened. The Boeing 737 had a landing speed of 130 MPH which created serious aqua-planing problems on water covered runway surface, which lead to dangerous braking and steering problems on landings and take offs on a runway length of 5000 feet. Airport Management suggested grooved runways as an experiment. On receipt of departmental approval, Airport maintenance staff utilized grooving machines that cut a 1/4″ deep groove 1/4″ wide, spaced 2″ apart across the runway, extending over the crucial 4,000 foot landing and takeoff area. This project was completed in 100 days at a total cost of $45,000. The results of this experiment were extremely gratifying as the aqua-planing problem was greatly improved. An unexpected bonus occurred when the run-off drained much more rapidly, leading to drier runway surfaces during cold wet weather. Port Hardy can lay claim to having the first (and I believe the only) grooved runway in Canada.
John Burtnick, a DOT employee, was appointed as the Imperial Oil agent and began a fifty-four year career refueling planes, taking only one fourteen day holiday during that time. Since 1946, he has set a work record as to be almost unequalled elsewhere. He worked a seven-day week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. His three pumps at the airport tarmac supplied aircraft with nearly 20 million gallons of aviation fuel or roughly an average of 1,500 gallons a day
The dedication took place in the Port Hardy Airport Terminal building on 27 September 2015 at 11:15, following the 75th Anniversary Parade honoring the Battle of Britain. LCol Clint Mowbray A/WComd 19 Wing and CO 442 Sqn, the guest speaker, talked about the RCAF’s role on the west coast during WW II and its present role of defending Canada and the importance of its search and rescue capability and what it meant to the North Island. He was followed by Linda Turner/Olinger who attended the dedication with her husband Keith and son Curtis. Linda was the daughter of F/O Curtis, the Copilot of Dak 966, who died in its crash on departing RCAF Stn Port Hardy on 18 July 1944. She was one year old at the time. Linda explained how attending this ceremony brought closure to her. She was presented with the dedication flag at the close of the ceremony. Reg/Renate Daws, the President of Pacific Group, was also present. After the ceremony, the participants moved back to the Glen Lyon for lunch and a debrief.