The Airmail Beacon
An airmail service was operating in Alberta by 1930 when it was decided that a “beacon” and emergency landing field should be established on a high point of land mid-way between Calgary and Lethbridge. Sixty acres of land was purchased from George Galbraith and was levelled, seeded to grass, and fenced. A fifty foot tower was built for the beacon, rows of lights were put in place to define the landing strip, and an auxiliary power plant was housed in a small building beside the tower. When the RCAF was looking for a site for a flying school, this existing facility was already in place and became the nucleus of the aerodrome.
Tomlinson Construction Ltd. was given the contract to build the taxiways and three runways. The Galbraith house was used as an office for a time but later demolished. Marwell Construction Ltd. was given the contact for the buildings. Between 600 and 700 workers were employed in addition to technical staff. A large percentage were Vulcan and district people and there was full employment in the area. All vacant farm homes were filled. The buildings included seven large hangars, “H-hut” dormitories, mess halls, administration buildings, a drill hall, and a hospital with two dental chairs. Water, sewer, heating, and electrical systems were, of course, required as well. The station was built to accommodate 1700 personnel but at one point there were 2500 men and women stationed there.
Construction of a railway spur line to the station began in November, 1943 and completed within five or six weeks by shifts of twenty-five men working day and night. The purpose is said to have been to haul coal but the line was only used about three times.
Impact on the Community
Once construction was completed, the demand for housing continued as many of the permanent staff brought their wives and lived in off-base accommodation. As they were uncertain as to the length of their posting, most were willing to live in any available building, with the result that many garages and dwellings previously thought to be uninhabitable were fixed up, painted, and lived in. As well, many residents created suites in their homes.
During the war years the stores and other facilities in the area enjoyed a real boom. The theatre in Vulcan ran shows every evening except Sunday, restaurants were always full, there were Saturday night dances, and taxi and regular bus service to Nanton and Vulcan. The banks stayed open after 5:00 pm on Fridays to cash the numerous paycheques.
No. 2 Flight Instructor School
The first school to operate at the site was No. 2 Flight Instructors School. It began operations in July 1942 but was not officially opened until October 30, 1942. At the opening ceremonies, W/C F.R. West, the commanding officer, spoke with pride of the huge effort required to build the facility, saying, “From a section and a half of prairie, which a year ago yielded some 40 bushels of grain to the acre, several crops of highly skilled flying instructors have been graduated. The initial class was made up of young men from all sections of the British Empire and the United States of America, who worked together with an excellent spirit. This performance set a pattern for succeeding classes.”
While at Vulcan, the school graduated some 25 courses of about thirty students each.
This was one of three Flight Instructor Schools that operated under the BCATP, the others being at Trenton, Ontario and Arnprior, Ontario. An RCAF report dated February 28, 1942 noted the following aircraft at the school: 48 Cessna Cranes and 39 Fairchild Cornells.
Relations with the nearby farmers was generally good but an entry in the station records of October 6, 1942 reported, “A/C 664 got tangled in barb wire fence and came to earth eight miles west of the station. Plane dismantled and towed in but not before an aged lady at a nearby farm house had forced repairs to fence using a shotgun for emphasis.”
In May, 1943 the school was moved to Pearce, Alberta (northeast of Fort Macleod).
No. 19 Service Flying Training School
The school opened in April, 1943 and operated Avro Anson Mk. II aircraft.
There was an average of about 1300 personnel and at one point there were as many as 2500 stationed at the base.
Of a total entry of 993 students, the school graduated 860 pilots from 17 different courses.
During the school’s operation some local residents complained of “hedge-hopping” and “cattle hazing” and it was reported that a plane dented the top of a moving car that was travelling south on the highway.
The school closed on March 29, 1945. The commanding officer, B.C. Andrews AFC, had the following words in his address to the final graduating class, “The RCAF has been the backbone of a great air training plan which in the space of a few short years has changed the course of world history. The enemy is well aware that the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan has accomplished a tremendous achievement. The aims and objects to provide personnel to maintain air supremacy in every theatre of war has been accomplished. Every member of this great service can be rightfully proud of their participation.”
The Nanton Connection
The presence of the base near Vulcan had a considerable effect on the town of Nanton, 28 km to the west. A congratulatory message from the Town was printed in the program for the official opening as were advertisements and best wishes from 14 Nanton businesses. When the officers of No. 19 SFTS held their first mess dinner in their recently completed dining room, the mayor of Nanton, O.E. Smith, was a special guest. Some base personnel and visitors were housed in Nanton and a regular bus service was operated.
RCAF Millennium Reunion
On July 14, 15, and 16, 2000 Vulcan hosted a reunion for No. 2 FIS and No. 19 SFTS veterans. As part of the program, a commemorative monument at the site of the aerodrome was dedicated.
The Site Today
The hangars of the Vulcan Aerodrome remain on the site, some 28 km directly east of Nanton. The commemorative monument lies to the south of the hangars. If you wish to visit the site, travel east of Nanton on Hwy. No. 533. Leave the highway when it turns to the north (18.5 km east of Nanton) and continue directly east for an additional 9.5 km.