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Edmonton City Centre Airport Closure: The End of an Era

The Edmonton city centre airport, or Blatchford field is a historic Canadian airport with a rich aviation history. On November 30, it closed via issuing NOTAM to the aviating public.

Officially closed

As per CARS (Canadian Aviation Regulations), crews put white X markers along the length of the remaining operating runway 12/30.  The other runway, 16/34 was closed over 3 years ago.  The CARS states that, any aerodrome not in service, must have yellow or white X’s, 6 meters in length along the runway.   These markings must be visible from the air.  An aerodrome closed permanently must remove all markings except for these X’s.

It’s sad to see them rolling those white X’s at CYXD.

Crews closing the City Centre Airport permanently. Image courtesy of Global
Crews closing the City Centre Airport permanently. Image courtesy of Global

The airport was officially closed at 5 pm of November 30.  You can see by the image on the left, rolling out the white X markings at dusk at only 5 pm – how early it gets dark in Edmonton that time of year!

Canada’s first licensed airfield

Blatchford field was created in 1929, after Edmonton city council authorized $35,000 to be spent on the airfield (this is over $462,000 in 2013 dollars) and became Canada’s first licensed airfield.  Keith Alexander Blatchford was major of Edmonton from 1924-1926.  It quickly became a hub and allowed Edmonton to boom even during the great depression and was the busiest airfield in Canada.

Where the magic of flight began

I started my journey into flying at City Centre, or CYXD – lovingly known also as the “muni” by local pilots.  Convinced that flying was a great idea, my timing was a bit off  –  I was still in graduate school  and didn’t understand the seriousness of the commitment I was making – and the fact that aviation would change my life forever.   I enrolled in ground school and took my first few flights.

Flying out of CYXD was a lot of fun, I would rush from the university, drive through downtown, and in just a short little drive and there was the airport and flight school.  It was so close and convenient. It was also a fabulous place from which to fly. Nothing really compares to the approach to 30, flying along the North Saskatchewan river over downtown.

Site of the Grand Prix

The airport was a tight community of aviators and the site of many outdoor events. For example, starting in 2005, the airport became the site of the Edmonton Grand Prix Champ Car race, merging with the Indy and Nascar leagues.  They used a portion of runway 16/34 as part of the race track.

Challenges at CYXD

As the airport got older, newer aircraft got bigger and required more runway.  The airport needed to be expanded but this was challenging due to it’s central location.  The increasing runway requirements of larger jets made operation at CYXD impossible.  In time Fokker F-28 and 727-100’s operated from the airfield. However the newer models of these aircraft had larger range and increased weight and runway length requirements made using city centre uneconomical, hence these carriers moved to CYEG, Edmonton international. In it’s final years, it was used primarily for flight training, medevac, general aviation and air charter.

Operating restrictions due to central location

Due to it’s central city location, the airport had several curfew and noise abatement procedures. Strict noise regulations were enforced from 22:00 until 7:00 hours local time. As well, there were height restrictions on all the downtown buildings due to safety measure for approaching and departing aircraft. No building could be built higher than 150 meters. The buildings in downtown Edmonton could not be built above this height due to safety clearance for aircraft.

Closure the result of a long debate

The debate about whether or not to keep the airport open started earlier, in 1992, but in 2009 the process began to begin a phased closure of the airport for certain.  The airport had two runways, 16/34 and 12/30.  On August 3, 2010,  a few short months after I started flying there, an issuing NOTAM officially closed runway 16/34 at 3 am of that day.  We were left with 12/30.

The closure of that runway was largely seen as a political “phase out” move, as having this runway closed did not give the city any extra land to work with. But it sent a strong message that the airports fate is sealed. It will only be a matter of time before it is closed, and that was perhaps the real reason for the phased runway closure.

A special closing ceremony

The closure of the 90 year old airport was marked by several events, one of them a scheduled fly-by of two Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18’s.   The flights were grounded due to weather. It seems mother nature was not thrilled about the closure!  A Boeing 737 belonging to the Alberta Aviation Museum made it out just a few days before the closure.  Though the museum gets to stay, the plane does not fit in with new property boundaries, hence the plane needed to be moved. There was some doubt whether or not preparations could be made and permission granted in time and of the closure, but everything went well.

What will happen to the land?

Most of the area will be developed into a ‘green’ residential community in Blatchford Redevelopment. The new community will bear the Blatchford name as part of homage to the airfield and it’s history.  Some land will be transfered to NAIT (The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology).

Flight schools and charters moved from the area slowly over the years, not knowing when the ‘shoe would drop’ and the City would begin shutting down the airport.  When it finally happened in September, with a firm closure date, businesses were ready to move. Most businesses moved to Villeneuve, Alberta, CZVL, about 35 km north west of Edmonton.  Villeneuve features runways 08/26 and 16/34 (identical to Springbank).

Boeing 737 GIPW: final take off from CYXD to new home in Villeneuve.   Image from: Global News
Boeing 737 GIPW: final take off from CYXD to new home in Villeneuve. Image from: Global News

Impediments to municipal growth?

Due to approaching and departing aircraft, no building in downtown Edmonton could be built higher than 815.34 metres (2,675.0 ft) above mean sea level. This means about 150 meters above downtown. The height restrictions of downtown buildings have impeded several urban projects from proceeding, projects that have been deemed vital to urban densification and allowing more people to live centrally. Activities due to flight activity make developing compact urban neighbourhoods challenging.  The tallest building is the Manulife building, rising 150 meters above runway threshold. Without the airport, the restrictions are dropped and the tallest building could be built to 312 meters, over double the height of the tallest building.

The height restriction is certainly not an impediment to growth – the city of Vancouver also has limits to protect the view of the North Shore mountains, in Montreal the limits are about 200 meters, Paris recently moved restrictions to allow buildings taller than 35 meters to make the Eiffel tower to dominate the skyline. Washinton D.C. also has height restrictions, with buildigs in central areas are generally not higher than 50 meters.  Are those not great cities?

The reason is to control sprawl, however, many cities,  Calgary has a problem with urban sprawl and there are no height restrictions due to central airport activity. So though there are reasons for the closure, as a pilot, I find it sad and upsetting.

The last aircraft to depart City Centre Airport before it was permanently closed.  This lovely image was taken by Jeff Wallace and retrieved from flickr.
The last aircraft to depart City Centre Airport before it was permanently closed. This lovely image was taken by Jeff Wallace and retrieved from flickr.

The last flight departed CYXD on November 30, a 1963 Cessna 172D. Ident C-FWKV flown by Mr. Chris Blower.

The airport closed with this final departure and with a helicopter salute.  It makes me a little misty eyed to watch the heliopters hover outside the control tower. This will be the last flight they observe from that tower.

Goodbye CYXD, and thanks for all the good memories. I’m glad to have been a part of your history.