Alberta Takes Off

Experiencing the Alberta Aviation Museum

For most people living or working on the North side of Edmonton, we have driven right by the Alberta Aviation Museum multiple times.  On the Northwest corner of the municipal airport, full scale replicas of a fighter jet and seaplane
Mcdonnell CF-101 Voodoo
Noorduyn Norseman
are presented hoisted over Kingsway Avenue to entice visitors to step in and experience a large section of Alberta’s history.  Through my blog post I will share some of the exhibits I found most interesting, which seems to have been the stories behind the aircraft and people that flew the planes displayed within the museum.  Through sharing a small portion of all the exhibits displayed will hopefully allow for a broad picture of the history that the Alberta Aviation Museum is trying to promote.
Early Flight
While planes and engines dominate the permanent displays in the center of the hanger, exhibits in glass cases surround the outer walls.  The first of such goes beyond Albertan history, and even that of powered flight.  From stories of Da Vinci’s plans for a human-powered ornithopter (that was never believed to have been actually constructed), Jean Marie Le Bris’s glider, and onto hot air balloons and airships, a brief summary of aviation that predates the modern period is presented.  Following this is a commemoration to 100 years of powered flight since 1903 featuring the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur.  They were influenced by a creator of German gliders named Otto Lilienthal, and in 1899 built their first aircraft, a five foot bi-plane kite.  In September 1900, they tested their No. 1 glider, and onward to 1903 where their No. 3 glider “Wright Flyer” was fitted with a 12 hp engine.  Ever since this first flight that lasted 12 seconds, and 120 feet, a new era of the fixed wing aircraft had emerged.
In addition to fixed wing aircraft, the history of the hot air balloon is presented.  Remnants of the first hot air balloon in Western Canada are shown in a portion of its entirety.  Built in 1967 by Piccard balloon Company in America, the balloon with markings CF-POP is Alberta’s first hot air balloon.  It was 60 feet tall, with a circumference of 150 feet.  Since Canada had no flight certificates for balloons at that time, it was imported as a weed burner, spinnaker sail, and laundry basket.  It took its first flight by Sandy Mactaggart on June 8, 1968, and was flown until 1985.

Curtis Stinson Special (1918)
Cigarette lighter replaced by lipstick holder

Upon entering the hangar, the first aircraft displayed is a replica of the Curtiss Special.  It was originally built in 1917 for American aviator Katherine Stinson.  On July 9, 1918, Stinson flew the first air mail flight in Western Canada, delivering 259 letters from Calgary to Edmonton.  Of interesting note, the plane had a small vanity case in the instrument panel (The 1917 version of Marge Simpson's Canyonero.)  While fitting within the sequential timeline of the museum, it is interesting to see that the first exhibit seen when entering is that of a female aviator.  In doing this, the museum is attempting to promote and inform the public of the diverse nature of the history of aviation in Alberta, and while dominated by men, women were still able to contribute as pioneers.

By showing the history that precedes Alberta’s entrance into general aviation, allow the visitor to realize that the history of aviation did not begin in Alberta; there was a long history of flight that had taken place before Alberta had even existed as a province.  Although the visitor will experience that contributions from Albertans were vital to Canadian aviation, it was more as being early adopters than innovators.  This may be hard to see at times as there are few parallels shown to the state of American or European aviation, however can largely be inferred seeing how most major aircraft companies and manufacturers were based outside of Canada.
Commercial Aviation
A large section is devoted to commercial aviation in Alberta, and produced were some of the most colourful and dynamic exhibits, filled with marketing material from the past.  Pacific Western Airlines existed from the 1950s to the 1980s, and provided service mainly to Western and Northern Canada.  First headquartered in Vancouver, then moved to Calgary in 1975, the airline grew and would eventually be bought out by Canadian Airlines, which would subsequently be bought out by Air Canada.  Pacific Western would later expand operations to charter service worldwide, as well as extensive cargo hauling.  In 1967, Pacific Western was the first Canadian airline to operate the Lockheed Hercules, and in 1968 was the first to fly the Boeing 737.
Wardair was another large commercial airline started in Edmonton by Max Ward in 1953.  It began as a charter airline to Northern Canada which flew small biplanes.  As it expanded, it provided a holiday charter service from Canada’s larger cities.  It was known for its high quality meals and advertised its “Steak and Champagne” flights.  Meals were always served on Royal Dalton China and Wardair can be remembered as one of Canada’s most lavish commercial airlines. This is quite the contrast to economy class in cramped airlines today with plastic containers and suspect food.  As Wardair expanded beyond its means, it was too taken over by Canadian Airlines in 1989.

In addition to aircraft, the museum also showcases pieces that support commercial aviation.  There is an exhibit on air traffic control with a map of Canada showing how regions are divided up across the country.  The Edmonton FIR (Flight Information Region) is the largest in the country and encompasses all of Alberta, along with Northern BC and Saskatchewan, and almost all of Northern Canada.  There is an older Raytheon PPI radar display console showcased, which would have been used by flight controllers based in Edmonton.  Air traffic controllers from Edmonton have been directing the skies for many years, and continue to do so currently.

Edmonton Flight Information Region

Through outlining a few of Alberta based commercial airlines that had grown into large companies allows the visitor to experience the history of how some of today’s large airlines such as Air Canada were formed.  Since these companies started from a single pilot along with a single small aircraft, it helps to illustrate a timeline on how airlines have grown.  However one shortcoming of the museum’s focus on commercial aviation was a lack of coverage given to the large number of small chartered airlines that still exist today, and more resemble small businesses.  By only outlining the airlines that have succeeded in growing immensely, there tends to be a “winner’s bias” among the exhibits which may tend to over amplify the success of Alberta’s commercial airlines.
Restoration plays a giant role in the museum being able to have such an extensive collection, and contribute to having a informed staff with firsthand knowledge of the aircraft.  Pacing through a gate on the west end of the hangar opens the visitor to restoration workspace that almost equals the size of the museum that houses the finished collection.  Filled with machinery, engines, and unfinished restoration projects, the room allows the visitor to see works in progress, and some of the hard work that is required to take the past, and make it look as if it was brand new, when it originally flew.  A wood shop exists that is closed off from the rest of the hangar, with windows scattered throughout, and the visitor is able to peer inside and see some work being carried out first hand. 
One interesting ongoing restoration is of a North American B-25 “Mitchell” Bomber that was flown in WW2.  It contains a decal stating it is from 418 Squadron, city of Edmonton, and home of the Grey Cup, along with Edmonton Eskimo colors around a painting of the Grey Cup.  The aircraft is very unique with a transparent nosecone which housed a forward gunner’s position.  Back into the main museum area, there is a large board with over 30 pictures depicting the restoration of a Noorduynn Norseman Mark IV, along with the finished plane housed right behind. 
North American B-25 Mitchell Bomber

Restoration seems to be important to the museum to demonstrate to the public the work they do, and to give credit to many volunteers who have put in countless hours to bring history back to life.  It also shows how history of flight is ongoing, and that exhibits within the walls will change over time.  With various donation boxes scattered throughout the museum, it is also more likely that visitors will donate to restoration projects if they physically see the progress being made and a more direct link from their contribution to the completion of projects.
Military Aviation
408 Squandron Crest
Albertans have been contributing to military aviation since WW1.  A display is devoted to Wilfrid Reid “Wop” May.  Trained as a pilot, graduating on Feb 28, 1918 as a Flight Lieutenant, Wop was eventually posted to a squadron in France under a commander from Edmonton named Roy Brown.  On April 21, 1918 his guns had jammed in a dogfight, and Baron Manfred von Richtofen (The Red Baron) was on his tail.  Roy Brown had managed to get behind the Red Baron and attack, forcing him to turn back, followed by the Red Baron being shot down by ground fire.  These two aviators from Edmonton were pivotal in the demise of the German’s top “ace” in WW1.  Upon surviving the war, then Captain “Wop” May had shot down 13 enemy aircraft, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After returning from the war, Wop and his brother Court created May Airplanes Ltd. In 1919, and was Canada’s first commercial aviation company.  They rented a Curtiss JN-4D Canuck from the City of Edmonton for $25 per month, and flew from May Field, which was the first licensed airport in Canada at what is today St. Albert Trail and 122nd Ave.  In addition to commercial flights, their antics such as having Mayor Joe Clarke drop a baseball from their plane to open the 1919 season, after which he flew the mayor under the High Level Bridge!  Their plane was restored by Stan Reynolds, and is displayed at the Reynolds Alberta Museum in Westaskiwin.

The last section of note is quite large and is of WW2 and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.  During WW2 the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia joined together to form a massive air training program in hopes of countering German airpower with a well trained allied force.  With Canada housing a majority of the facilities due to the safe geographic location, far from active battle zones, bases were created across the country from flying schools to training for support operations.  Edmonton hosted a major base that involved multiple aspects of military aviation, and trained many crews from across the Commonwealth, as well as some from the United States who joined.  Displays were shown of Squadron 417 and 418 based in Edmonton, the Battle of Britain, as well as medals and stories from pilots who participated in WW2.  Restored aircraft were on display, as well as an eye-popping red fire truck that was used at the time. 
De Havilland Mosquito B35 (1943)
Nazi kills

Through the large amount of military exhibits including WW1, WW2, and the air cadet museum & archives, a strong message is sent to the importance of military aviation in Edmonton.  Blatchford Field can often be seen as the beginning to the current CFB Edmonton north of the city, and provides a direct link that runs from 1929 to the present.  Through displaying aircraft, and telling stories of pilots, the museum takes a multifaceted approach to share an immense and lengthy military history that the visitor can absorb quickly.  Although addressed, the sheer amount of loss of lives throughout the wars was not presented prominently among the displays.  With this, the museum has chosen to focus on the successes and victories that military aviation contributed to, as opposed to the price that was paid to achieve them.  I find this to be a refreshing and appropriate balance as holidays such as Remembrance Day are more appropriate avenues for memorials, while museums can direct more attention to actual events that occurred.
What the experience lacked
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the Alberta Aviation Museum, there were definite aspects that frustrated me, and should be improved going into the future to create a more positive and informative experience.
"Please do no cross ropes"
I found access to the interiors of the aircraft completely impossible.  With all of the planes on display, there was not one single aircraft I could sit inside, and experience the aircraft from the interior.  There was a simulator using Microsoft Flight Simulator that was also unavailable for public use at the time.  As well, a bank of desktops with a UAV Simulator was seen, however also not in use.  For all the opportunities for the public to have an interactive experience with aviation, the museum had all of these exhibits closed to the public.  Further speaking to the interactive experience, in over an hour spent inside the hangar, there was not one member of staff in sight to answer questions, or interact with patrons.
Another criticism would be the lack of time spent on presentation.  Possibly since the museum is housed inside a hangar, volunteers and staff find it acceptable to have incomplete exhibits, and ones that seem to be finished in a hurry.  I believe presentation matters, and if you cannot present straightforward, colourful, easy to read exhibits, it is simply a sign of laziness.  The staff of the museum seem to incorporate too much time on quantity, while not caring about consistency among quality.  Although restored aircraft seem to be the focus of the museum, static grounded aircraft are limited in engaging visitors.  Stories and exhibits that incorporate these aircraft into a historical context should really be the focus of the museum to reach a maximum impact.  Displays need to be well lit, complete, and fill the space to be held to the same high standard of other museums in Edmonton. 

Final Thoughts
The museum did a wonderful job showcasing aircraft from the beginning of powered flight, up until the modern era.  While the aircraft were the centerpieces of the museum, it was truly the stories of brave pilots, entrepreneurs, and people involved with aviation in Alberta that really brought the history to life.  An airplane on display in a hanger is only able to show a dormant object, which can only show a brief moment of what these powerful machines can accomplish.  Stories of the past really allow visitors to experience what these aviators went through, and their important contributions to the history and growth of Edmonton, and Alberta.  Through both commercial and military aviation, Edmonton has participated in a vibrant aviation industry, which has created a giant footprint in the city’s history. 


  1. I really would like to go there and look all the exhibits. It is cool to know that aircraft developing history of North America. I walked by the museum several times and never had a chance to go in there. After reading your blog. I would like to go to the museum and have a experience. Is there any morden aircraft there?

  2. It seemed like a fairly interesting museum to me because I've always been interested in flight. If you are interested in the history of flight, and particularly an Albertan perspective, this museum will appeal to you. They have a fairly extensive collection, including other exhibits on helicopters, law enforcement, bush pilots, among countless others.

    There really was not a lot of modern aircraft there (If by modern you mean aircraft that are still in active operations today.) There is a Boeing 737 from 1972 that would be similar to something that Westjet would fly today. It would have been interesting if they had an ultra light aircraft, or other small aircraft that are flown currently. Possibly they believe such aircraft are not historically relevant enough at this time, or are just too expensive to acquire.

  3. So sad that a museum can fall victim to laziness, especially with a great collection in hand like the one you describe. Or perhaps do you think budgeting or staffing was the issue? Anything that detracts from the overall look, feel and educational experience of a museum and yet and can be avoided is a real shame. I love the detail on Wop May, but did they mention much about he and Vic Horner delivering diphtheria toxin to Little Red River? It’s unfortunate that you couldn’t get to see inside the planes all that well. An interactive component like that would have really enhanced your experience.

    P.S. Reference to the cigarette lighter in the cartoon made me laugh. My husband and I still say "cigarette lighter" when referring to the outlet and my son always looks at us like we're weird. He has no clue what that is now, but I remember all cars had them, and we used to have fun with them as kids as we waited for our parents (?!) (...our "seat beltless" car (lol!), yet another interesting historical feature about transportation in that era).

  4. As much as I criticized the museum, there are possibilities that they were in a position of transition, especially being in the middle of summer. I think it would be a reasonable assertion that they are busier during the winter when schools could take trips to the Alberta Aviation Museum. Budgeting definitely must factor into their staffing. Attendance was sparse when I went during the week, with only one other visitor inside, along with a school bus full of children entering just as I left. I can understand that service levels may increase parallel to visitors. However I believe they should adhere to a minimum standard so all visitors get to maximize the experience they partake in.

    As for the cigarette lighter, I too have forgotten that it doesn’t exist in new vehicles, and is now an electrical outlet. I wonder whether planes came equipped with cigarette lighters pre-1980 now.

  5. I've been to that museum, while it wasn't the best I sure enjoyed myself! Thanks for the post.

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