The History of the Calgary Flying Club
Part I – 1927 to 1940
By Flying Club Historian Dave Mapplebeck
1927 was a banner year for aviation. Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo, non-stop airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize. Others had crossed the Atlantic before him. In fact, Lindbergh was the 67th person to cross the Atlantic by air. But the press loved the success and daring of Lindbergh’s solo flight. Radio and newsreels spread the accomplishment around the world like a virus. It quickly elevated Lindbergh to heroic status and aviation along with it. Aviation and everything about it became all the rage that year and the public was described as being “aviation-minded”. Perhaps “obsessed” would be another word. Late in 1927 in a small city named Calgary a group of over 100 aviation enthusiasts met to form an organization that would go on to become an important part of the lives of several thousand pilots over the next 90 years.
The Calgary Aero Club (the name was changed to “Calgary Flying Club” in 1946) came into being due to two large influences. One was the tremendous popularity of aviation in the public and the other key piece was the financial and material support provided by the Government of Canada. Following the conclusion of the First World War it became clear that Canada’s military would require a base of trained pilots from which resources could be drawn in time of future conflict. In 1926 the Government created a plan that it would provide two free aircraft to any flying club that could be formed and meet certain requirements including providing a suitable aerodrome from which to fly and finding at least 30 members who were prepared to become qualified pilots. The Plan would also subsidize training to the amount of $100.00 for every pilot’s certificate granted and $3.00 per flying hour for training taken between the private and commercial licenses. This sounded like a very good deal to aviation enthusiasts in Calgary.
On November 1, 1927 the first meeting of the Calgary Aero Club was held in the Armories. World War I flying ace Fred R. McCall, DSO-MC-DFC was unanimously elected as the first president of the Club. 98 people took out memberships the first night and of these 56 were willing to undertake flight training. The next day the Calgary Herald reported that “The meeting was considered one of the most enthusiastic ever held as an organization venture in the field of new endeavour in Calgary”. The first ground school commenced on November 15th and was held in Calgary Fire Hall Number 1 on 6th avenue downtown. Ground school cost $15.00 for 25 lectures and a private pilot license was to cost $150.00. The Club soon had 100 students. On December 1, 1927 the Calgary Aero Club was incorporated.
The 1927 Aero Club was actually the second “Calgary Aero Club”. The first was formed in 1919 with McCall at the helm as a Vice-President. 1919 was the same year that McCall made his famous, nearly miraculous forced landing on a merry-go-round at the Calgary Exhibition. The members of the Aero Club of 1919 had grand plans to purchase a surplus Vickers Vimy Bomber to fly. It isn’t a surprise that getting one proved to be difficult and the Aero Club faded away some time in the mid-1920’s.
Following the formation of the 1927 Aero Club the next several months were spent preparing a field near the Banff Coach Road to the West of the city near what is now the intersection of 17th Avenue SW and Sarcee Trail. The Club was delayed in obtaining aircraft until well into 1928 as it was unable to find a qualified flight instructor until Bill Rutledge was hired in August and attended an instructor’s course. On September 12, 1928 the Club’s first aircraft, a de Havilland D.H. 60X Cirrus Moth (G-CALA) arrived and on September 19, 1928, the Club commenced flying operations. The Club hosted Calgary’s first air show on September 29th.
By the end of 1928 the Club had logged 349 hours of flying time and had produced nine private pilots and one commercial pilot. Club membership had grown to 310. The choice of airfields was causing a problem for the Club and everyone else. Gusty wind conditions and rocky soil at the Banff Coach Road aerodrome created havoc for the relatively light biplanes. Plans were made to move the Club to the new Calgary municipal airport near the Stanley Jones School (about a kilometer north-east of what is now Calgary’s downtown core). On November 2st, 1928 the first female pilot in Alberta, Gertrude de la Vergne, obtained her private license from the Club. De la Vergne’s solo flight was something of an event in Calgary. Hundreds of people turned up at the aerodrome from all over Calgary to see a “Lady Pilot” fly.
In 1929 the Club grew to 1060 members, making it the largest flying club in Canada and the second largest in world. A campaign to get new members had paid off and had included stunts performed over the city by Bill Rutledge. The Club began to publish a members’ Magazine called the “Slipstream” with de la Verne as the first editor and publication manager. The Club’s annual banquet and dance held at the Palliser Hotel on March 20th was a note-worthy affair. Those attending were surprised to see one of the Club’s aircraft, G-CAKQ sitting on the dance floor of the Crystal Ballroom when they arrived. Several volunteers smuggled the Moth Biplane in by taking the wings off and lifting the plane in three pieces into the hotel on the top of one of the hotel’s elevator cars.
In July 1929 Rutledge resigned to form his own company and took with him the assistant instructor, the air engineer and apprentice engineer. Without sufficient staff the Club was forced to suspend flight operations until August 9th when the services of Joe Patton were obtained as flight instructor. In September the Club moved to the new Municipal airport and hosted Calgary’s second air show.
The arrival of the 1930’s was not easy on the Club. The Depression was in full swing and some members felt that the Club should stop all flight operations, sell off the assets, and leave training to Rutledge Air Service and Great Western Airways, the local commercial services. After considerable debate it was decided at the 1930 annual general meeting that the Club should not be disbanded. In retrospect this was a good decision – Rutledge and Great Western went into receivership the following year. The Club’s ability to weather times that for-profit enterprises could not was to prove a stabilizing influence on Calgary’s aviation industry for many years to come.
On March 9th, 1930 a Curtis C-1 Robin operated by Rutledge Air Service landed on top of the Club’s de Havilland D.H. 60M Gipsy Moth, CF-CAO. The Moth was badly damaged and the student pilot, Bill Smith (who would go on to become manager of the Club from 1936-1970), received serious injuries. On July 22nd the Club’s only other aircraft, G-CAKQ was damaged after landing short and could not be repaired. The Club was again forced to suspend flight operations since both its aircraft were out of service.
In January 1932 the Club won the law suit it had launched against Rutledge Air Service and received an amount of $2500 in compensation. After debts were paid the Club was left with only $1500 and still faced the responsibility of restoring the Gipsy Moth CF-CAO to flying condition because it had be loaned to the Club by the Department of National Defense. The Department, realizing that the other flight training facilities were now gone, was very interested in seeing the Club continue doing flight training. It was agreed to allow CF-CAO to be rebuilt for $1000 using some of the parts from G-CAKQ. In July 1932 flight operations were resumed with George Clarke as the Chief Flying Instructor and Air Engineer.
By 1933 demand had grown to the point that a second aircraft was needed and in October an Avro 616 Avian IVM, CF-CDV, was made available by the DND. The aircraft had to be flown to Calgary from Camp Borden, Ontario by George Clarke. The trip took Clarke over two weeks to complete since the Avian’s engine required repairs en route. Clarke even needed to borrow a pair of skis from the Winnipeg Flying Club to complete the journey due to early snowfall.
In the latter half of the 1930’s the economy began to improve. The demand for aviation personnel created many changes in the Club’s staff in this period. In 1936 the Club was able to offer instruction in “Blind Flying” (flying by use of instruments in the cockpit) in its new IFR-capable Tiger Moth (CF-CBS). By 1939 the tensions that would develop into the Second World War were at play and in the summer of that year the Club was contracted by the Canadian Government to train pilots for the Royal Canadian Air Force.
At the outbreak of World War II the Club was assigned the role of operating a pilot training base. The Municipal Airport site was considered but its close proximity to residential areas to the south and west and to the new airport, McCall Field to the North made it a poor choice. In August of 1940 the Club closed down its operations at the Calgary Municipal Airport and moved its personnel to Lethbridge where the Club operated Number 5 Elementary Flight Training School as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
Copyright © 2016 by David L. Mapplebeck. Reproduction in whole or in part without the expressed consent of the author is strictly prohibited.