Stories to Spaces: The Abbotsford International Airport

Written by Amber Purewal and Natalia Deros
Black and white photo of two planes on a tarmac.
Photo of two planes at Abbotsford Airport taken by Ernie Poignant during the flood of 1948.

Driving through the farmlands of Abbotsford, it is easy to appreciate the beauty of the surrounding lands. The berries are ripe and the serene landscape is only ever so often interrupted by a passing vehicle. It is therefore difficult to miss the imposing, out-of-place structure that cements itself in the center of the scenic countryside.

The Abbotsford International Airport is a significant and well-known landmark in Abbotsford today. However, how much do you know about the rich and memorable history of this site that has been around since before many of us were born?

The Abbotsford International Airport, originally situated in the District of Matsqui, officially opened in 1943 as the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Station Abbotsford. This airport was initially constructed in an attempt to strengthen Allied defenses on the west coast following the events of Pearl Harbor. Canada’s west coast was considered to be in danger, and it is important to note that this defense strategy included the devastating and unjust removal of entire families of Japanese descent from within 100 miles of the ocean to internment camps further east. 

As a response to this perceived threat, the Canadian government expropriated the farmland from fourteen families in the Peardonville area.  The farmers were compensated $1 for their land, which was considered as a fair price by the authorities for their contributions to the war effort.   

From 1943-45, the airport was used as a training facility for military pilots under the British Commonwealth Air Training Program (BCATP), which required a major aerodrome to house the Cornell Aeroplanes and Liberator Bombers. This site, which originally included 44 large buildings (including three hangars, all of which are still in use), was the largest military airport in the country. This meant that pilots from all over the British Empire arrived at the little Abbotsford airport in the countryside which seemed far removed from carnage in Europe and Africa.

Affectionately called “the country club” by pilots in training centres across the country, those lucky enough to be posted in Abbotsford quickly integrated into the community. It gave the residents of the community a sense of pride and ownership of the national war effort. Families all over Abbotsford billeted pilots and their wives alongside their own families.  Dances at the newly built Town Hall was one of few pleasures during those hard years, and the dashing pilots were an exciting addition to the festivities. Some of these war time romances lead to reverse war time brides – instead of the Canadian men coming home with international wives, the suave airmen would return home to Europe with a Canadian wife.

Following the war, the #5 Operational Training Unit (OTU) that trained pilots was disbanded but the RCAF continued to be responsible for the airport until 1958. During this time, it was used mainly as a summer training camp for air cadets.

The airport also doubled as a shelter when the Fraser River flooded in 1948. This once-in-a -century flood destroyed farms, livelihoods, and lead to incredible material loss across the valley. The airport’s buildings and pastures was repurposed as an evacuation center for the 3,000 people who were forced to wait weeks for the water to subside before they could return to what remained of their homes. The airport sheltered both people and livestock who needed to escape the flood. The Abbotsford Lions Club, with help from the Chilliwack Flying Club, generously organized a 3-day airshow to raise proceeds for flood victims.

Additionally, in 1957 the airport doubled as a refugee center. The use of the airport during the flood set a precedent for one of the largest refugee efforts across Canada at that point.  In January 1957 the federal government accepted 3,000 Hungarian refugees fleeing the failed uprising to overthrow their communist government.  A thousand of those were sent to BC, and most of them passed through the airport at some point. Interestingly, the entire forestry department at the University of Sopron stayed at the makeshift refugee camp- most of them ended up working and studying at the UBC School of Forestry, which ended up being uniquely influenced by Hungarian culture.

A cafeteria, hospital, housing for families, and ESL (English as a Second Language) classrooms were hastily constructed within the hangars. As couples were not allowed to stay together unless they were married, the airport was also the site of a handful of weddings; residents rallied together for food and clothing drives. The Hungarian brides got to wear beautiful dresses and couples enjoyed their wedding day even amid so much chaos and upheaval. About a year later, the airport was taken over by the Canadian Department of Transport.

The Airport truly outdid itself in 1962 when the collaborative efforts of Abbotsford Rotary Club and the Abbotsford Flying Club succeeded in launching the first aviation show in the city: The Abbotsford Airshow. This airshow debuted on August 11-12 and became a very popular attraction. Soon, it was dubbed “Canada’s National Airshow” by former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Even the King of Jordan, King Hussein bin Talal, attended in 1974. The show remains a huge success to this day.

In 1984, the Abbotsford Airport would once again launch another huge event which transformed the airfield into an outdoor church for Pope John Paul II’s visit. In September 1984 he arrived to find 200,000 people congregated for his mass. It was a huge event filled with plenty of excitement as people attempted to catch even the slightest glimpse of the Pope.

1986 was the year wherein the Abbotsford Airport was combined with Expo ’86 and showcased one of the largest air shows in North America. It was especially memorable because the USSR took part for the very first time. The Tradex was constructed in 1991 to house Airshow Canada – an aviation trade show that ran annually until 1997 that attracted more than 500 people from 50 different countries.

In 1997, the City of Abbotsford purchased the airport from Transport Canada for a nominal fee of $10. Since then $80 million has been invested in infrastructure at this location. At first the airport only brought in a sparse 3000 passengers per year. In fact, passenger traffic was so slow that the property made more revenue from the raspberry farms on the land than air travel.  However, by 2018 the airport had become Canada’s fastest growing airport by passenger volume, with over 840,000 travelers passing through its doors.

Today, the airport does its best to provide inexpensive and accessible air travel across Canada. It also provides international flights to places like Mazatlán, Las Vegas, and more. In addition, the airport continues to run training programs for aspiring pilots and is internationally known for annually hosting the Canada National Airshow, Abbotsford International Airshow and Girls Fly Too.

The Abbotsford Airport has significantly impacted the inhabitants of this city, whether by providing shelter during a flood or entertaining us with world-class aerial performances. As the airport continues to grow and thrive, it continues to cement itself as a proud part of the Abbotsford’s community.