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May. 25, 2022 | Wednesday
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Niagara's History Unveiled: 90 years of flying in NOTL
NOTL airfield full of Tiger Moth fighter planes in 1943 when it was a training facility. (Submitted)

On the cool, wind-swept beaches in Kitty Hawk, N.C., history was being made in the dawn of the 20th century.

On Dec. 17, 1903, at 10:35 in the morning two brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright proved to the world that man was capable of successfully flying under his own power.

Their first flight lasted 12 seconds, gained a height of 10 feet and covered a distance of 120 feet, shorter than the wing span of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Three more flights were conducted that morning. The last flight, at noon, lasted 59 seconds, gained a height of 14 feet and flew for 852 feet.

The first flight in Canada took place in Baddeck, N.S., on Feb. 23, 1909, when John McCurdy piloted the Silver Dart.

The plane was designed by Alexander Graham Bell and the team from the Aerial Experimental Association, the majority of whom were Canadian.

McCurdy flew the plane for a distance of 2,640 feet, at an elevation of 30 feet for 45 seconds. The speed was an astounding 40 mph!

The First World War saw the aviation world expand greatly. No longer considered experimental, planes were now developed into war machines. However, when the war was over, there was a glut of pilots; those thrill-seekers discovered that the return to civilian life was not easy.

In Canada, as well as in the United States, “barn storming” brought aviation to the masses. The deathdefying and thrilling aerial demonstrations were performed not just in and around large cities but out in rural communities.

Young people now dreamed of flying, a dream that was attainable. Small airports and flight schools popped up across the country.

In May 1929, the St. Catharines Flying Club received its charter to be officially recognized by the Canadian government to run a flight school. The first Niagara District Airport was just northeast of the Welland Canal but in 1935 it moved to its present location.

The St. Catharines Flying Club moved as well and has been an integral part of the airport, even to this day. Both the flying club and the airport are celebrating their 90th anniversaries this year.

When the Second World War broke out airplanes were once again considered war machines. However, this time, Canadian pilots did their training in Canada with the newest branch of the Department of National Defence, the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Although we did have pilots flying and fighting during the First World War, they were trained and commanded under Britain’s Royal Air Force. After the war the Canadian government debated back and forth whether a permanent air force could or should be maintained. The decision was finally made on April 1, 1924: Canada would have a permanent air force.

In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and war was declared throughout Europe including Great Britain, which meant all the Commonwealth countries. Canada was now at war and the three branches of our military, army, navy and air were in full training.

At the time, small airports were deeded to the Department of National Defence. Niagara District Airport was included and became the Elementary Flying Training School (#9) in the fall of 1940. During the years from 1940 to Jan. 15, 1944, a total of 1,848 pilots were trained in the basics of flying. Further training in aerial combat was done in Britain.

One well-known pilot to go through the training at the Niagara District Airport was John Gillespie Magee. When he finished his training in Canada, he was shipped out to England where he continued to train.

He was one of several who experimented with high-altitude (40,000-feet plus) flight into the stratosphere. After his first high-altitude flight he composed the poem “High Flight,” which he sent to his mother on the back of one of his letters.

On Dec. 11, 1941, Magee died in a training session. He is buried in Lincolnshire, England.

After his death, his parents had the poem published. It is now the official poem of the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Air Force Academy. This poem can be seen at the Niagara District Airport just outside of the main terminal building.

Another important alumnus is St. Catharines native Leonard Birchall, who is also known as the “Saviour of Ceylon” (now Sri Lanka). Birchall always wanted to fly and saved relentlessly to just purchase one more hour of flight training. Eventually he attended the Royal Military College and just after his graduation, the Second World War was declared. And, like all young men at that time, he volunteered and joined the RCAF.

His first tour of duty was flying anti-submarine combat patrols off the coast of Nova Scotia. Later, he was sent to northern Scotland where he flew the new Consolidated Catalina long-range amphibious aircraft to run patrols throughout the British Isles. This was short-lived as Japan had entered the war and Birchall’s squadron was sent to Ceylon.

Birchall was not even there 48 hours when he was sent out on a patrol. On April 4, 1942, just a few hours into the patrol, a huge Japanese naval fleet was spotted heading toward Ceylon. The air crew were able to send a coded message back to headquarters before they were detected by the Japanese and shot down. Birchall and six of his eight surviving crew members were held as prisoners of war.

The Japanese tortured the men to find out if a message had been sent but all claimed they hadn’t had time before they were shot down. The Japanese fleet continued toward Ceylon, which was now prepared for battle. Although heavy damage was inflicted by the Japanese, they were not able to take the port and eventually withdrew.

On Birchall’s return to Canada after the war, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He died on Sept. 10, 2004, and is buried in Kingston, Ont..

The Niagara District Airport is celebrating its 90th anniversary of operation. Over the years there have been many ups and downs, it has seen businesses come and go and many stories to reflect upon.

The airport is ideally located in the beautiful wine region of the Niagara peninsula. Close to Niagara Falls, historic Niagara-on-the-Lake, golf courses, the theatre and excellent restaurants.

It boasts a 5,000-foot runway with a 24-hour customs clearance capability. On-site services include jet refuelling, NAV Canada and Avgas (aviation fuel).

There is a flight training school on site as there has been since the first airport opened its doors in 1929. Daily flights to Toronto are available as are helicopter tours over the region. The new terminal building offers hassle-free services to all commuters and visitors to the region.

Another anniversary celebration must also be noted. The first parachute jump in Canada was made on July 4, 1919, by Frank Ellis. He jumped from a Curtis JN4 aircraft piloted by Don Russell over Crystal Beach, Ont.

At 10,000 feet, using a 28-foot circular canopy as his parachute, Ellis jumped. Landing in Lake Erie, he used two rubber tubes as flotation devices until a pleasure craft was able to pick him up.

The Niagara Historical Society is bringing the Canadian Forces Snowbirds back to the Niagara District Airport next week for everyone to enjoy their wonderful show. However, we now realize just how fortuitous the date is that we were given by the Snowbirds.

A celebration of 90 years of operation for the Niagara District Airport and 100 years of the first parachute jump in Canada offers a great day for all.

On Sept. 11, not only will you be able to watch the aerial display of the Snowbirds but you will also have an opportunity to watch the Geronimo! Sky Diving team. Free parking, food trucks, merchants and many displays will also be on hand as well.

For more information on the event, go to

More Niagara’s History Unveiled articles about the past of Niagara-on-the-Lake are available at: