Local History: Halifax’s original airport

A Canadian air force bomber at the former Halifax airport on Chebucto Road during the Second World War. Photo: Julia Myra/Nova Scotia Archives

A small park offers a tantalizing glimpse of the early days of aviation in the city

Travelling on Chebucto Road, you’ve probably noticed that narrow little park between the road and the houses, but did you know it was once Halifax’s first airport?

Officials announced the 25-hectare site of the Halifax Municipal Airport in September 1928. At the time, it was farmland and swamp, with Chebucto Road, Mumford Road, Connaught Avenue, and Bayers Road bordering the property.

In May 1930, a crew of about 80 built fences and dug 5 km of drainage to clear water from the runways. Work began on two landing strips in 1930. By 1931, the airport was in operation, with Halifax Aero Club running it under lease from the city. The group had two new Gipsy Moth planes. Manager Donald Saunders, a veteran First World War pilot, taught hundreds of students to fly.

The Gipsy Moth was a popular plane at the club because it was so easy to fly. Not that standards were particularly rigorous: it took students a maximum of 10 hours of flying time to earn their pilot’s licences. Many new pilots found a lucrative side hustle charging locals $2 a pop for plane rides over the city.

The airport quickly became a bustling operation, with workers soon adding a large permanent hangar. In February 1931, Canada Airways Limited operated the airport’s first regular scheduled service carrying six passengers per flight between Halifax and Saint John, N.B., for $20 each. The flights also carried cargo, with one manifest listing dresses bound for the Eaton’s department store. 

Pan American Airways built a terminal building and state-of-the-art concrete loading pad for planes, and started Halifax’s first regular international air service, offering 12-passenger flights twice daily between Halifax and Boston. Tickets cost $35. The Sikorsky amphibian planes travelled a breathtaking 120 miles per hour, making the news when one crashed into the ocean near Gloucester, Mass. One person died in the crash.

In April 1936, the airport saw some of its busiest days during the Moose River Gold Mine Disaster. Six miners were trapped underground for six days, sparking an international media event with Canada’s first live media coverage of a disaster. (Workers even lowered a radio transmitter down the mine, allowing enraptured listeners to hear the rescue in progress).  

A winged cairn in Saunders Park marks the site of Halifax’s first airport, and commemorates aviation pioneer Donald Saunders. Photo: Robert Alfers/Wikimedia Commons

Reporters from all over North America chartered flights to Halifax as the drama unfolded. The airport lights were unavailable when many of the night flights arrived (records aren’t clear as to why), so Donald Saunders, who was still manager, had drivers park their cars around the runway, illuminating it with headlights. History records one “minor” landing accident as a result.

The airport kept growing. In 1937, workers extended the runways, but by 1938, it was apparent the tiny pastoral site wasn’t adequate for the city’s fast-growing needs. The air force’s new Shearwater airport in Dartmouth, opened in 1940, would serve airlines, leaving the Halifax airport as the domain of light planes and hobbyists.

The Second World War gave the site one final flurry of activity, hosting training flights until it closed in October 1941 to become the army’s Chebucto Barracks.

Today, a portion of the old airport off Chebucto Road is called Saunders Park. A winged cairn commemorates Donald Saunders, known as “Mr. Flying,” honouring him as a pioneer in Canadian aviation. He was instructor of the Halifax Flying Club from 1928 to 1937, served with the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War. He was also manager of the Halifax Municipal Airport.

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