The remarkable history of the Thunder Bay International Airport
by Brian G. Spare
Did you know the place where Thunder Bay International Airport is now isn’t the original location? I didn’t until writing this article. In June 1929 Bishopsfield (named after Billy Bishop WWI flying ace) became the Lakehead’s first airport and the sixteenth in Canada as a result of the efforts of the City of Fort William and the Fort William Aero Club. Located just north of Rosslyn Road and Twin City Crossroads in Neebing Township, it quickly became the hub of aviation enthusiasts.
Canada’s first woman aviation engineer
As WWII approached, Canadian Car & Foundry (now Bombardier) was contracted by the British military to build Hawker Hurricanes for the Royal Air Force. Elsie Gregory MacGill, Canada‘s first woman Aviation Engineer and possibly the first woman anywhere to design an aircraft (the Maple Leaf II), was hired as chief engineer at Canadian Car, something unheard of in the 1930s. In her tenure at Can Car (1939-1943) Elsie MacGill oversaw the manufacture of 1451 Hurricanes representing 10% of all the Hawker Hurricanes built during WWII. After the Hawker Hurricanes, Can Car was contracted by the US military to manufacture Helldiver dive bombers for the navy. It was an aircraft designed and redesigned as it was being built. In all Can Car made 894 Helldivers. How did all those planes get from the Can Car plant to Europe or the US? They were trucked six kilometres down the road from the plant to Bishopsfield where they were each flight tested and flown out.
Commercial travel … airport moved
After WWII, aviation interests turned to commercial travel. As flying became an increasingly popular way to travel the airport grew and a larger site was needed. CD Howe Minister for Transportation, better known for putting the grain elevators in the Lakehead, was instrumental in getting the airport moved to its present location at the crossroads of Arthur St. and HWY 61. In July 1953 the first terminal building opened at Fort William Airport. It was later renamed Lakehead airport. Demand for air travel steadily increased and the terminal was expanded in 1964. And as air travel continued to increase and the airport would grow with it. A new larger terminal was built in 1978 being renamed the Thunder Bay airport January 10, 1970. It was replaced by the current 3x larger user-friendly terminal July 10, 1994 just in time for the 1995 World Nordic Championships.
Thunder Bay International Airport Authority
The federal government handed over operations of the airport to the Thunder Bay International Airport Authority (TBIAA), a private not-for-profit corporation, September 1, 1997. The TBIAA negotiated a 60 year lease to run the Airport and each year it has seen continued growth with the Airport working at an operating surplus. In 2011, Airport activity was calculated at $586 million total GDP, a growth of 15% since 2008, receiving 720,000 passengers and supporting 5000 jobs. Its success is due to TBIAA’s unique business model which includes three for-profit companies and the Board and management team’s constant view to the future. A new hotel will be constructed on Airport property, and after four years in the making, an 8.9 MW $30 million solar power plant was built on Airport land. As well the TBIAA is always looking to increase the efficiency of operations and improve customer service.
You can’t have a future without a past.
The Northwestern Ontario Aviation Heritage Centre (NOAHC) was commissioned September 3, 2008 as a regional centre for Northwestern Ontario based in Thunder Bay to preserve and celebrate the diverse history of aviation in the Northwest. It is maintaining our aviation past through the collection and preservation of the stories of pilots, airlines and aviation workers, its artifacts, and stories of people and events that make NWO’s aviation history unique. The centre’s goal is to provide visitors with both the history and interactive displays giving them hands-on experience of the thrill of flight. It travels through our region giving presentations and workshops as well. If you have a story you would like to share, or donate aviation memorabilia to the centre, volunteer or become a member please contact NOAHC president Jim Milne at 623-3522, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.noahc.org.
Just as the TBIAA is working hard to ensure a bright future for our airport, the NOAHC is preserving an aviation past we can all be proud of.
Thank you to the following for their help with this article:
Thunder Bay International Airport Authority
Northwestern Ontario Aviation Heritage Centre
Thunder Bay Historical Museum
Thunder Bay Public Library
Brian G. Spare is a local author and freelance copywriter who is a regular contributor to Bayview Magazine. Contact him at https://BrianGSpare.com
*Previously published in Bayview Magazine*