RCAF Station Sandspit
Sandspit can trace its history to the ancient Haida Village of Kil located east of Haans Creek. As far back as 10,000 years the Haida have lived on the remote island. The first European settlers arrived in Sandspit around 1900, when ranchers and settlers settled near the grassy flats of the spit establishing farms and ranches. Sandspit’s first major industry was a dogfish oilery in 1910, followed by a fish cannery in 1913. Over the course of the next 10 years a handful of families settled in the area and a school was opened. After Pacific Mills (now Timber West Forest Ltd.) moved into the area in 1944 more settlers arrived.
The first known flight to the Queen Charlotte Islands occurred in the summer of 1922, when Major George A. “Tommy” Thompson flew a 1920 model Junkers-Larson JL-6, G-CADP christened “The Vic” from Prince Rupert and scouted the Island on a prospecting trip for the aircraft’s owners, the Railway Employees Investment & Industrial Association of Hazelton, B.C.
During the summer of the following year the islands were again to hear the sound of an aircraft when on August 29, 1923, the Canadian Air Force (before the formation of the RCAF) detachment at Prince Rupert sent its Curtiss HS-2L flying boat, G-CYDX, to circumnavigate the Queen Charlotte Islands. The pilot of “YDX” was F/O Earl L. MacLeod, with crewman Harold Davenport. MacLeod recalls the flight in his work “In Retrospect”:
“I was interested, on my flights there, to observe many deserted Indian villages, where scores of splendid Totem Poles could be seen, many fallen, many still standing. I was told that whole communities of the Haida Indians had been decimated by epidemics of Smallpox, the last of these occurring in about 1900. I have regretted, on subsequent flights to the Queen Charlottes, to note that many of the splendid Totems have been stolen by passing ships, mostly going to a foreign country.
On our flight up the eastern shore of the northern island, Graham Island, I was curious about tracks of hoofed animals that could be seen on the white sands, for scores of miles, south from Rose Spit. I had been told that there were no deer whatever on the islands. I discovered that the tracks were those of cattle that had gone wild “after their owners had left to join up,” as most of the settlers did, in World War I. Very few of the volunteers returned. In the 1920’s, deer were planted on the islands, and surprisingly soon became over-plentiful, as no predators, such as wolves or cougars, are to be found there.”
On May 1, 1935, No. 4 (FB) Flying Boat Squadron at Jericho Beach, made an extensive survey flight of Moresby Island in the Queen Charlotte Islands in a Vickers Vancouver #905.
April 1936, S/L L.F. Stevenson and F/Sgt Winney carried out a survey flight of the Queen Charlotte Islands, where they were to locate sites for potential airports and flying boat stations in preparation for the defence of the west coast in the event of war. The airport site selected was at Sandspit on the farm of the Matthers family, and this property was secured on September 15, 1937. Initial plans for the airport called for a steel mat strip runway to accommodate fighter aircraft for the defense of the nearby Alliford Bay flying boat station. This was later modified to make it a staging base for Alaska bound aircraft and an emergency field. The RCAF unit at Sandspit was very small with only 20 personnel and six buildings which included a dining room, kitchen, lounge, canteen, and sleeping quarters. On the 11 Aug 43 the initial draft of Airmen was dispatched to Sandspit to start clearing for the runway construction. One scow of tractors and a boatload of equipment and 50 additional men were dispatched on the following day. Although the runway was reported completed towards the end of September, it was not officially handed over until early 1944. It took a month less a day to lay the 4,800 foot asphalt runway. This would be the last airport project for Western Air Command and No. 9 (CMU) Construction Maintenance Unit. Members based in Sandspit and some from Alliford Bay began constructing cabins along the beach at Sachs Creek for their families. After the closing of the station the cabins were relocated to Sandspit to provide housing for the town’s residents and are still used by the local residents.
Effective April 1, 1944, RCAF Secret Organization Order #183 stated that “In order to utilize existing facilities and effect economy, the re-organization of certain units in Western Air Command is the intention to form Coastal Staging Units at Port Hardy, Masset and Sandspit, B.C. Effective April 1, 1944, RCAF Station Sandspit is to be re-organized as No. 23 Staging Unit.” RCAF Sandspit served in this capacity until the spring of 1946, when F/L Inglis was appointed Officer Commanding of the unit and Pacific Mills constructed a cottage for the officer’s residence. RCAF Sandspit was closed on August 1, 1946, and F/L Inglis turned over the station to the Department of Transport representative, Mr. Austin. The takeover went smoothly, except that the Flight Sergent in charge of the aviation fuel tank farm had miscalculated the fuel on hand, which was 12,000 gallons more than it should have been. The other discrepancy was a 26 oz bottle of rum that was not on the inventory. Mr. Austio and F/L Inglers quickly solved the rum problem but the disposition of the avgas is not known An airport license was issued in the name of the Department of Transport on June 16, 1947, and a terminal building constructed in 1951.
There was only one major accident at the Sandspit airport. The evening of January 18, 1952, was just another quiet Friday at Sandspit. It was a cool, 34° F evening with occasional snow showers and a light wind.. There was an accumulation of snow on the ground but the runway was clear. At 21:11 that same evening Northwest Airlines Flight 324, a Douglas DC-4, lifted off the runway at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Anchorage bound for McChord Air Force Base, Washington, with three crew members and 40 military personal on their way home from Japan. Just after midnight, the captain declared an emergency as he had to shut down number one engine and he diverted to Sandspit which was the closest suitable airfield. The approach seemed normal but the touchdown was long and the captain elected to do a go-around. Not long after the aircraft disappeared into the snow, the controller heard shouting so a boat was launched and about 1 ½ hours later, seven survivors were found alive on the left wing tip. The remaining thirty three passengers and the three crew members had died of exposure or drowning, not from injuries.
Sandspit continued onward with a complete runway repaving in 1978. The new, Haida themed, terminal was opened in 1995 complete with a new parking lot and road system. Of the three RCAF wartime flying bases, only Sandpit continues in use. It has grown to meet the needs of Haida Gwaii and is now a great asset to these communities. This confirms the insight of those aerial pioneers in the 30’s and 40’s who chose Sandspit as the airport for the Queen Charlotte Islands.
On May 28, 2016 following the dedication at Alliford Bay, 101 Squadron, 888 RCAFA Wing, and 19 Wing RCAF personnel, plus local residents, returned to Sandspit Airport where a plaque outlining the wartime history of RCAF Station Sandspit was unveiled. A similar dedication ceremony took place with AWCmdr and Brian Charman talking about the history of Sandspit and its importance today. Brian is married to the granddaughter of the family that sold the land to Canada. After the dedication a short lunch was provided at the Sandspit Inn next to the airport and then everyone was back aboard the Buffalo for the short hop to Masset and our third and final dedication.