Eugene Ely was the first to take to the air in Manitoba when he took off from Winnipeg’s polo field in a Curtiss Flyer. The polo grounds can thus lay claim to being the city’s first airfield.
Thousands watched as Ely completed two successful flights and then crash-landed on his third. Ely set two “firsts” for Manitoba – first flight and first crash.
There is no record that the polo grounds were ever used again as an airfield although its history as a polo ground and racetrack continued ultimately to become Winnipeg’s Polo Park Shopping Centre in 1959.
After that historic flight, there was aviation activity in the Winnipeg region, but no location provided a focus for the industry. The impetus for a “real” airfield in Winnipeg came in 1927 when the Department of National Defence said it would give two de Havilland Moth biplanes to any community flying club that would provide a flying instructor, an air engineer, and a licensed airfield. The federal government designed the grant program to encourage aviation. It was an offer too good to refuse.
A group of public-spirited Manitobans had already formed the Aviation League of Manitoba earlier the same year. The league in turn created a spin-off organization and it was this organization that made the actual application to Ottawa, which was one of the first four applications submitted by the end of 1927.
Stevenson Aerodrome, Winnipeg’s first “real” airport came into being in the spring of 1928 on 160 acres of prairie grassland leased from the rural municipality of St. James, at the foot of Sackville Street, just beyond the western boundary of Winnipeg. Stevenson Aerodrome opened with great fanfare on March 27.
By any standards, Stevenson Aerodrome was an airfield at its most basic. The runways were laid out on grass or surfaced with a basic clay overlay. There was a hangar that could only shelter aircraft with folding wings. What was generously described as the “passenger terminal” was an attached lean-to. Snow was not ploughed, but compacted. In the winter, cut evergreen trees stuck into the snow outlined the runways. These primitive conditions, however, did not prove to be a handicap.
The airfield was named after the famous Manitoba aviator and bush pilot, Frederick J. Stevenson, who was described at the time as “Canada’s premier commercial pilot.” Stevenson was a fighter pilot in the First World War, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. His wartime achievements were eclipsed by his peacetime exploits. He participated in aerobatic exhibitions in Manitoba and Saskatchewan before joining Western Canada Airways. He flew open-cockpit aircraft with few navigational aids into remote communities. Stevenson died early in 1928 in a crash at The Pas.
In 1929, the lease on Stevenson Field was extended a further 21 years and the Winnipeg Aeroplane Club was re-organized into the Winnipeg Flying Club. The picture above of the Winnipeg Flying Club’s airfield was taken around 1941.
Edited from Altitude, a quarterly publication of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada, Winter 2011. Written with notes compiled by Leon Dubickyj, who has spent many hours looking for, and reading, every newspaper reference about the history of Stevenson Field.