The Great One set NHL records on Edmonton ice. The Edmonton Eskimos set CFL records in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. Edmonton’s Municipal Airport, known as Blatchford Field in 1943, set the record for the busiest airport in North America.

Sports teams start with a good core, and that was certainly the case in 1943 with Edmonton’s airport.

Blatchford Field was the first municipal airport in Canada. Canadian aviation pioneer Wop May was among the World War I flying veterans who convinced Mayor Blatchford to build an aerodrome. It opened on January 8, 1926, and the city took over administration in 1929.

The airport was one of the busiest prewar airfields in Canada. Grant McConachie, founder of Canadian Pacific Airlines and another aviation pioneer, based his operations in Edmonton. Trans-Canada Airline flights to Edmonton commenced in 1938. Resource discovery and exploitation in northwest Canada took off, thanks in part to the Edmonton aerial gateway.

When war was declared in 1939, the municipal airport was leased to the federal government for a dollar for the duration.

Based on prior scouting, the Department of Transport completed in January 1940 detailed engineering work for airfields at Grande Prairie, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake and Whitehorse. Indeed, the newly formed Canadian American Permanent Joint Board on Defence, in its first formal report to the two governments, listed development of these facilities among its many recommendations. By September 1941, landing strips, useable in daylight, in good weather, were in place. This route originated at Edmonton and, with subsequent additional airfields, would be known as the Northwest Staging Route.

In 1940, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) based facilities at Blatchford Field. No. 2 Air Observers School, operated by Canadian Airways, and No. 16 Elementary Flying School, run by the Edmonton Flying Training School, soon greatly increased traffic.

The Japanese threat to Alaska added more still. Before the war ended in the Pacific, 716 American Army Air Force aircraft would be ferried over the Northwest Staging Route, through Edmonton to Alaska. And the construction of both the Alaska Highway and the Canol Pipeline Project generated considerable air traffic. At one point, these projects and the return of pilots from the ferrying aircraft led to as many as five American commercial carriers flying through Edmonton.

However, in 1943, it was the flow of aircraft destined for Russia that put Edmonton into the record books.

By war’s end, over half the more than 14,000 aircraft given to the Soviets under the Lend Lease program were ferried over the Alaska-Siberia (ALSIB) route. (This does not include aircraft such as the Canadian made Hurricanes ordered by the British but retransferred to the Russians).

Although an alternative aircraft ferry route via the South Atlantic to Abadan, Iran, was also used, the advantages of the ALSIB route were apparent even in view of the difficulties of harsh winter conditions. The route started at Great Falls, Montana, and ended in Krasnoyarsk. American pilots took the aircraft, many already in their Soviet markings, as far as Fairbanks, Alaska.

The bulk of the Soviet fighters ferried through Edmonton were P-39 Aircobras (2,618 in total) and P-63 King Cobras (2,397). Bombers seen on Blatchford aprons would most likely have been A-20s (1,363) or B-25s (733). The ALSIB was the only route to the USSR taken by the 707 C-46s given to Stalin’s forces.

Although the P-39 Aircobra did not have a good reputation with the Western Allies, a Soviet pilot, G.A. Rechkalov, scored 50 victories with a P-39Q, possibly the highest score by any pilot with an American type of fighter. The A-20, also less favoured in the West, was adapted by the Soviets to carry torpedoes.

On September 29, 1943, the airport manager reported that Edmonton handled 860 aircraft on that day. The record-making congestion led to the move of some air training to Clareshom and Penhold, while the Americans commenced construction of a new airfield at Namao, completed in 1945.

Aircraft Repair Ltd, established by Wilfred Leigh Brintnell in 1936 to service planes for his Mackenzie Air, expanded to three hangers built by the federal government at the onset of war, and was given ALSIB activity such as modifications to 62 P-63 Kingcobras ordered by the Soviets. At peak, Aircraft Repair employed 2,500 people, in three shifts around the clock.

In 1992 a memorial to the Soviet ferry flyers was unveiled at Yakutsk. It is estimated that 134 pilots died on the “Route of Courage,” as the Russian portion from Fairbanks to Krasnoyarsk was labeled. In 2006, at Fort Wainwright, an ALSIB memorial was officially unveiled.

NHL teams may have risen to champions with the arrival of great Russian players, but Edmonton’s aviation record of 1943 is the result of Russian-bound aircraft.

Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC), a retired Canadian Armour officer, is a recipient of Canada’s Meritorious Service Cross.