When Windsor Got Its Wings

You may have read the fascinating account of a very rare ticket which was hidden in a Windsor home. Kevin Malott was renovating his basement last weekend when he discovered an 83-year-old admission ticket to the grand opening of Walker Airport in 1928. In case you missed it, you can read about his unusual find here.

Here’s a story we ran in 2003 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Windsor Airport. (Man, how time “flies” – another milestone coming up next year!)

Getting Off the Ground

On December 17, 1903, two young bicycle mechanics from South Carolina built and successfully flew a plane at Kitty Hawk. The flight wasn’t much –12 seconds, 120 feet – but it was the first controlled, sustained flight in a heavier-than-air craft. Orville and Wilbur Wright had changed the world forever.

25 years later, the collective dream of several local WWI vets for Windsor to have its own airport became a reality. In this special edition of The TIMES magazine, we present to you a fascinating look at the early days of local flight as well as the birth and evolution of Windsor Airport. Many of our readers contributed their own personal memories of the airport, planes and flying as well as wonderful photographs.

Hard to believe that just 41 years after our airport opened, three men flew through space all the way to the moon.

Fleet Finches bi-planes were lined up every day at Windsor Airport for WWII pilots-in-training. (Photo courtesy Hester Curtis)

When the Wright brothers finally proved that flight was possible, people flew planes purely for sport. But soon after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, military planners realized that airplanes could be useful in warfare and even influence the outcome of the war.

In 1915, soldiers witnessed the first effective use of new weapons of war, including the airplane, the tank, and the submarine. Soon the skies over battlefields were filled with blimps, planes, and tethered balloons. The rapid evolution of aircraft during World War I was profound and unmatched by any other advancement at the time. From reconnaissance to bombing, the use of airplanes in the war became a necessity and by the end of the war airplanes and pilots had earned the respect they deserved. By 1918 planes had become a symbol of fear – and victory.

Sprouting Wings

In 1920, two years after the end of the “war to end all wars,” a local group of Royal Air Force veterans formed the Border Cities Aero Club in remembrance of their wartime service. This association was the first and oldest group in Canada to be granted a charter as a member of the Royal Canadian Flying Clubs Association.

Flying drew the interest of many in the border cities; in 1919 a crowd had gathered near a large field at the corner of Howard Avenue and Tecumseh Road to go on flying trips in Universal Company planes, piloted by Lieut. Charles Stocking, a famous U.S. military aviator.

An Aviation Committee of the Border Cities (Windsor, Sandwich, Walkerville, Ford City and East Windsor) Chamber of Commerce was organized in 1924 to explore the construction of a landing field and the development of an aircraft industry. Far-sighted committee members believed that when commercial flying became practical in Canada, an established local business organization should be in existence to promote aviation in this community.

The successful New York to Paris flight of Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh (May 20 – 21,1927) electrified the entire world. His solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic took him 33 hours and 19 minutes. No other event in aero history had captured the imagination and admiration of so many. It served to inspire eager flyers ready to follow him into the skies.

The Royal Windsor: no ocean crossing (damn!)
(Photo courtesy Walter Ritchie)

In Windsor, local aviation enthusiasts decided to promote their own non-stop, trans-Atlantic flight – from Windsor, Canada to Windsor, England. In September 1927, American Phil Wood and Duke Schiller, a pilot in the Ontario Provincial Air Service, began their flight from a field near Walker Road. The pair flew the “Royal Windsor,” a Stinson-Detroiter monoplane for about a week before bad weather and mechanical breakdowns forced them to give up their attempt.

Despite its failure to reach England, the Royal Windsor expedition sparked considerable interest in local aviation. The unique geographical position of the Border Cities stirred the belief that this community could rapidly become the airplane manufacturing and the aviation centre of Canada, especially since it was already at the epicentre of the booming auto industry.

A branch of the Aviation League of Canada soon formed and the Chamber Aviation Committee was enlarged to include Aero Club workers and officers with a mandate to establish an aerodrome (airport) in the community.

Walker Airport

Their efforts were greatly assisted by the generosity of Harrington Walker and Hiram H. Walker (offspring of Hiram Walker who had died in 1899) who managed the Walkerville Land and Building Company (a wholly owned company of Hiram Walker’s & Sons Distillery).

The company was petitioned by local aviation enthusiasts for permission to rent a field in their Walker Farms holdings for flying activities. The Walker’s responded by providing a tract of land ideally located at the edge of town for a period of five years, free of rent, in addition to a gift of $10,000 to be used in assisting with the building of the hangar. The township of Sandwich East exempted the property from taxes with the exception of local improvement and school taxes.

The dream of a local airport became a reality when Walker Airport officially opened on September 8, 1928. White-painted planks two feet wide and 24 feet long marked the perimeter of the field. A rotating beacon was installed and the roof of the hangar was painted in large squares of alternating colour. Barrels of oil were set up for lighting to illuminate the runway during poor weather or for night landings. In the centre of the field was a square enclosed in a circle painted white which designated it as a port of entry for Canada Customs during daylight hours.

Grand Opening: Walker Airport 1928
(Photo courtesy David Newman)

The grand opening ceremonies featured parachute drops, exhibition flying, and an Essex County air derby – Canada’s first air competition. The Puritan, a Goodrich blimp, arrived amid much excitement – the first such craft to land at the airport.

The following day marked the start of Canada’s first international air race. Five planes flew out of Walker Airport bound for Los Angeles, competing for more than $10,000. A pilot from London, Ontario was declared the technical winner when his plane was the only one to reach Omaha, Nebraska before the 4-day deadline.

The early years of the Depression, and a disastrous fire in 1930 – which destroyed aircraft and equipment – created much hardship for the Border Cities Aero Club. The legality of its agreement with the Walker estate, to whom they paid a dollar a year for the land, was challenged by Sandwich East Township, since the club was exempt from paying taxes to the township. When the flying club could not pay up the township seized the property. In 1931, the Walker estate redeemed the land.

The flying club managed to keep operating with the help of Roy Patterson, who continued to lease the land. Things greatly improved in 1933 when John Canfield rented the airport and became its manager. Canfield and his wife, Mary, both flying instructors, were a colourful pair and attracted many new fliers to the airport. Known to many as “Windsor’s Father of Aviation,” Canfield developed an ambitious plan to expand the airport in 1936.

Despite several years of success in flight training, the financial impact of the Depression was staggering. Like so many other businesses in the area, the club became insolvent and in late 1938, Leavens Bros. of Toronto leased the airport. The new company moved in personnel, aircraft and established its own flight training school. The Border Cities Aero Club continued to exist only as a social organization.

WW II and Expansion

You can read the rest of Windsor Airport’s first 75 years on our site: walkervilletimes.com. Please click here.

Top photos, clockwise from top left: a 1930s mailplane; a 1930s Border City Aero Club pin awarded to flyers who passed their flying test; BCAC president Norman Reynolds and Evelyn Elmquist of Detroit at the annual “Pilots’ Prom,” February, 1939; Walker Airport hangar; local pilot Ruth St. Louis (nee Gooby); centre photo taken during comedian/actor Bob Hope’s visit to Windsor’s No. 7 Early Flying Training School in 1943. Bob Hope (centre) stands with Flight Sgt. Haddon (possibly on wing behind him) and three employees of the airport, Earl, Gorno and Scotty.
(montage by Chuck Rees, Walkerville Publishing)

Story Sources

Wright Brothers History: The Tale of the Airplane, A Brief Account of the Invention of the Airplane, researched, written, and designed by Gary Bradshaw http://www.wam.umd.edu/~stwright/WrBr/Wrights.html
The Story of Aviation in Essex County, 1920 to 1992 by E. M. Robinson, June, 1992
Souvenir Program, Official Opening, Walker Airport, 1928, Border Cities Star
A Sod Patch That Grew, Sharon Hill, The Windsor Star, September 8, 1985
On Great White Wings – The Wright Brothers and the Race for Flight, Fred E. C. Culick and Spencer Dunmore, Madison Press Books, 2001
Special thanks to Charles E. Fox, Walter Ritchie, Ralph Howling and Hester Curtis.

About Elaine Weeks

How history was taught in my day: memorize lots of boring dates and facts, watch corny old black & white history films. There was one bright spot, however. Grade 9 history at Walkerville Collegiate with Miss Falls (Georgina) when she taught a section on local history and took us on a field trip to explore some of Windsor's built heritage. Due to a series of peculiar events, celebrating local history became part of my business. My company, Walkerville Publishing Inc., (partner is Chris Edwards) launched "The Walkerville Times" in 1999 and we produced 61 issues - the last in 2016. In 2004, we began producing local history books; that year we released "Best of The Times Magazine". Our current titles include 5000 Ways You Know You're From Detroit, 500 Ways You Know You're From Windsor, Walkerville - Whisky Town Extraordinaire, and Windsor Then - A Pictorial Essay of Windsor's Glorious Past. I also wrote a novel, Time Trespasser, that blends time travel with local history. I am working on a sequel. I am a writer, editor, blogger, photographer, mother, wife, sister, activist, traveller, gardener, knitter, glass is nearly full person.
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