By BOB McCARTHY
Did you know that there was a Hadfield connection with the Sarnia Airport long before Chris Hadfield became one of Canada’s astronauts? I will tell you about that in a moment, but first let me tell you about the early days of the Sarnia Airport. In 1951, William Moon moved from London to Sarnia, to work as a watchmaker for Young's Jewellers. As a veteran of the R.C.A.F in World War II, and a member of the R.C.A.F. Reserve, he was surprised to find that there was no airport in Sarnia.
Seeing the possibilities for an air service here, he began to look for a suitable airport location and chose the present site on August 20, 1951. Following an inspection by the Department of Transport to ensure its acceptability, an approval license was issued.
Following is the story of the early days of the Sarnia Airport as told many years ago in his own words by William Moon.
Beginning of Sarnia Airport
I began to look for ways to raise the necessary funds to buy the 210 acre parcel and joined forces in 1953 with a local lawyer, E. S. Colbert, who was attempting to establish an airport to the south of Corunna. Since there was a good deal of resistance to the Corunna location, we decided to develop the location just ENE of Sarnia. By the summer of 1955, we had purchased the land from the local farmers.
To ensure that we could operate an air service from the projected field, we made application for a Class 7 Charter License on November 7, 1954. The plans called for a 3300 foot NE/SW grass runway, and a 60foot by 40 foot hangar. As a licensed flight instructor and commercial pilot, I planned a flying school (using J3 Cubs) and a charter service (with Cessna 185s), with the intention of flying charters to London to connect with the Trans Canada Airlines scheduled flights.
Talking to various petro-chemical industries made it quite clear that a regular airline service, using twin-engine aircraft, was needed. To operate a twin-engine airline service on a regular basis, we needed a hard surface runway, in place of the grass strip already in the works.
Imperial Oil Ltd., Holmes Foundry and Dow Chemical, all had their own aircraft, then flying into St. Clair County Airport, in Port Huron. To get industry participation, it was felt that the airport should be owned by the City of Sarnia, and so a three way agreement was signed, between Sarnia Airport Ltd., the City of Sarnia, and the industries. The city was to receive $150,000 from the petro-chemical companies, which would be used to purchase the airport land and hangar, which would then be leased back to Sarnia Airport Ltd. With the receipt of a further $150,000 in government funding, to equal the industry contribution, an agreement was signed on August 13, 1958.
Between the fall of 1956 and the summer of 1958, when the hard surface was completed, we had proceeded with a flying school and charter service. Rod Pritchard, an ex RCAF pilot, and Joe Pollard were hired and the hangar and offices were built. In the summer of 1957, a north/south grass runway was completed, using two men, two tractors and a truck to build and level the runway. In September of that year, their first J3 Cub, CF-IUH, was bought from Hicks and Lawrence, a Tillsonburg crop-dusting concern.
About the same time, we obtained a contract from Inter-provincial Pipelines to patrol the pipeline being built from Sarnia to Port Credit, and bought a Cessna 140, CF-GLF for this job.
By November 18, 1957, we had soloed our first students, Russ Walker and his wife Nellie Walker, Bill DeMeester and Jim Arnold and we had hired their chief mechanic, Frank Shainline, who had been with Leavens Bros. in Windsor.
On the first of May, 1958, we changed the name from Sarnia St. Clair Air Services Limited to Sarnia Airlines Limited, and in June, we bought our second J3 Cub, CF-KRI.
Finally, in August of 1958, the roots of Sarnia Airlines began to grow as we hired an ex RCAF pilot, Ed Wall, as chief pilot, and purchased a Piper Apache, CF-LAL. We went searching for a suitable "Dove" aircraft, and in November 1958, took possession of CF-LDE, from Massey Ferguson Ltd., of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. To complete this "growth" period, we also hired Leo Houlihan and George Mirehouse, as co-pilots.
In November 1958, we received permission for an instrument "let down" procedure so that we could fly IFR into Sarnia, and on November 30, Sarnia’s Mayor Marshall Gowland cut the ribbon at the Sarnia Airlines Class 3 Dedication Service.
Their first flight took place on December 1, 1958. Flight #101 left Sarnia for London and Toronto, at 10:00 a.m., with Ed Wall and Leo Houlihan at the controls. The passenger list for that occasion included E. S. Colbert and W. Moon, President and Vice-President and General Manager of Sarnia Airlines Ltd., Mayor Gowland of Sarnia, Brian Shellon, editor of the Sarnia Observer, and Claude Irvin, owner of CHOK Radio. On July 27, 1959, we inaugurated flights to Windsor.
For two years we struggled to make the airline pay, but there were many obstacles to be overcome. For instance, the twin engine Dove had a VFR seating for 8, but because of the extra fuel requirement for IFR flights, we could only take 6 passengers. Besides this, Imperial Oil was using its own DC-3 to take its personnel in and out of Sarnia.
Every member of the staff, from Chief Engineer to Apprentice, was voluntarily working overtime, at no extra pay, to keep the aircraft serviced, sometimes into the early hours of the morning.
The hangar was unheated, and the larger twin engine Dove would not fit into the building, so we had to construct a nose hangar to keep the aircraft sheltered as much as possible. For night flights, we used a flare path of kerosene burning lamps, much like those used in the Second World War, and snow removal was a very big problem, considering the light farm equipment we had to use. It was the dedication of the staff that kept the airport going.
We were our own weather office, getting incoming weather information from Lansing, Michigan. However, this was of little use to us because the weather usually changed over Lake Huron, and became worse as it crossed our routes. Fortunately, the Dove had good deicing equipment, and our crews were "the best".
In order to be able to handle peak loads, we used the Apache and the Cessna 182, but this could only be done in VFR conditions.
Eventually, it was felt that we should try to interest a larger carrier in taking over our airline service, and we arranged meetings with Quebecair, Wheeler, Austin Airways and Nordair. On November 16, 1960, we relinquished our Class 3 license to Nordair, and in return received a contract to supply the ground "turnaround" maintenance, gassing and reservations at Sarnia. This new phase was serviced with DC-3s.
We continued our other flying services, eventually selling out to Seneca Air Services, who later sold out to the present operator, Huron Aviation.
HISTORICAL NOTES from the author:
At the beginning of this column, I asked the question ‘Did you know that there was a Hadfield connection with the Sarnia Airport long before Chris Hadfield became one of Canada’s astronauts?’
During 1957, an instructor was hired. His name was Roger Hadfield. He later went on to become an Air Canada Captain and head of Canada's aerobatic team. His son, Chris Hadfield, after whom this airport is now named, was the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space.
The true author of this story, Bill Moon, arrived in Sarnia in 1951 to work for Young's Jewellers as their watchmaker. He was an ex RCAF Pilot with a commercial pilot's license and also a licensed flight instructor. He started to look for a possible airport site, and decided on the present site. He applied to the Department of Transport for a license for that site and said license was issued on August 20th, 1951, after an inspection of the location by the department.
After they sold out, Bill Moon returned to the jewellery business, opening his own store, Swiss Jewellers of Sarnia. Bill died of cancer on February 20 1997 at the age of 73. He remained very much involved in aviation, flying a PIK 3C sailplane and enjoying the ’Poetry of Silent Flight’.
Bill Moon set up the Flying Club in November 1957 after purchasing a J3 Cub from Hicks & Lawrence in Tillsonburg. They used the grass runway until the asphalt was ready. They provided "Ground School" in the evenings. Some of the Ground School instructors were their flight instructors. (Moon, Hadfield, Kiser, but other qualified pilots also lectured on various subjects – Stu Steinberg was one of these people). They turned out over 287 pilots (or more) before selling out to Seneca.
Some of the first pilots to solo were:
Jim Arnold, Ken Walker, Russ Walker, Fr. Paul Beniteau, Nellie Walker , Roger Vandeweghe, Jack Heslop, Norm Kennedy, Ron Armstrong, Roly Gauthier, Charlie Harris, Ellery Smith, John Grieve, Lloyd Passingham,
Bill Elliott, Marjory Pallister