North America's First Civilian Airport In Harbour Grace
Most of Harbour Grace's history consists of exciting stories filled with pirates, English-French Warfare, and tales of the fishery. Harbour Grace is one of the last places many would think to look to find aviation history and innovation. During the 1920s and 1930s air travel was still a fairly new concept and airline companies and pilots were pushing the limits of air travel to greater and greater lengths. This lead to the construction of an airfield in Harbour Grace with the purpose of serving as a takeoff and stopover point for pilots hoping to conquer the trans-Atlantic crossing. Although it is known by few, the Harbour Grace airfield was Newfoundlands first air facility and is considered to be the first civil airport in North America (NL Encyclopedia).
In 1927, Fred Koehler began searching the east coast of Newfoundland for a place suitable to construct a stopover airfield in order to cater pilots and aircraft hoping to cross the Atlantic. Koehler was a representative of Stinson Aircraft Corporation and Waco Oil based out of Detroit, Michigan who hoped to encourage more to attempt around world flights and help in the development of long range travel. During a visit to Harbour Grace Koehler met with a local resident named John Oke who in turn showed him the piece of land to which the airstrip is located today.
The ideal of an airfield in Harbour Grace was supported by many and on July 25, 1927 a meeting held at town hall lead to the creation of the "Harbour Grace Airport Trust Company". The committee composed of 21 members each of whom contributed money on a "non-profit, no interest basis" (NL Encyclopedia). The Newfoundland Government also seen potential in the airport and provided a $14,500 grant to cover the cost of constructing the runway and machinery.
With the help of local citizens the airstrip was built and finished the following month. When completed the gravel surface runway measured 1219 metres and was 61 metres wide. The airport was of exceptional quality for its time and because of this it gained worldwide recognition.
On August 26, 1927 Edward F. Schlee and William S. Brock took off from Maine in a small monoplane named the Pride of Detroit. The following day they landed at Harbour Grace making them the first pilots to use the airstrip. Sadly their around the world trip was later aborted on September 11 due to engine troubles.
Many famous pilots passed through Harbour Grace during the years the airfield was operational. One of the most well known people to pass through here was aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart who passed through Harbour Grace on May 20, 1932 before making her solo flight across the Atlantic. After leaving Harbour Grace she flew for 14 hours and 56 minutes before landing in Culmore in Northern Ireland in a Lockheed Vega. The 34 year old pilot was given the title of being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
Today Earhart is known by most for her pilot skills and the role she played in showing woman and men are equals. Today in Harbour Grace, a statue and memorial is placed at the waterfront in honour of her.
The Harbour Grace Airport operated for nine successful years before closing on Oct. 29, 1936. In the duration of its use eleven of the 20 flights taken off from here were successful on their trip across the Atlantic. Sadly many did not make it but all who attempted helped in the development of stronger and more advanced aircraft.
During World War II the Royal Canadian Navy reopened the airstrip as a base for aircraft to track and intercept German U-boats. Although it was not used much during this time it is believed that at least one U-Boat was sunk as a result of the aircraft stationed here (NL Encyclopedia). After the war had ended the airstrip was once again left to deteriorate.
In 1977 thanks to the efforts of the Harbour Grace Historical Society the air field was once again restored to operating condition. On November 4th, 1999 the airfield was assigned the Official International Identifier, CHG2 and listed as a usable and active "Canadian Flight Supplement". On the site today, many would find it hard to believe the importance this grassy field had on the development of long distance travelling.
Sources & Further Exploring
Smallwood, J. R., & Pitt, R. D. W. (1981). Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador. St. John's, N.L.: Newfoundland Book Publishers. (Articles: “Harbour Grace” & “Airfields”. Available online through the Centre for Newfoundland Studies collections database)
Find out more about the location and story of the airfield on the Town of Harbour Grace’s Website found at http://www.hrgrace.ca/site/history/.