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That time Toronto pondered an airport in the Port Lands

Posted by Chris Bateman / April 5, 2014

toronto stolportEarlier this week Toronto city council voted to talk about one day allowing jet flights out of the island airport. If the city eventually gives the green light, the runway could be extended by 168 metres at each end, further into the Toronto Bay and closer to the new Ontario Place parkland.

At around 1,550 metres, the new landing strip would still be about half the length of several of the runways at Pearson, but still considerably bigger than the tiny one the city briefly considered building in the 1970s. It was never built, of course, but in light of recent events the Toronto STOLport was an interesting concept for an urban airport.

toronto island airportThe island airport, Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport to use its full, formal name, was built in 1937. Its construction was authorized by the same controversial council vote that established Pearson Airport (then Malton) and gave the newly-formed Trans-Canada Air Lines a place to land in Toronto.

The artificial field south of Bathurst Street was created by filling in a large lagoon popular with boaters, demolishing an amusement park that included the baseball stadium where Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run, and razing a cluster of homes at Hanlan's Point. Before the extensive landscaping work, the northwestern end of the islands had ended in two distinct fingers.

The airport was originally named Port George VI Island Airport in honour of an upcoming royal visit and was mainly used for pilot training and the occasional passenger flight. The first commercial arrival, a "giant U.S. airliner from New York," contained Tommy Dorsey "The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing" and his band who played over two nights at the dance pavilion at the Exhibition Grounds in September 1939.

Also on stage that summer were Artie Shaw, Glen Gray, Bennie Goodman, and Guy Lombardo.

toronto island airportDuring the middle years of the second world war, the field was used by the Royal Norwegian Air Force and nicknamed Little Norway. The country's government and military leaders had been forced to flee after the Nazi invasion and run the country's defence corps in exile. Pilots received basic training on the Toronto Islands in little fighter planes: Fairchild PT-19s, Northrop N-3PBs, and Curtiss Hawk 75-A8s.

In the 1950s, the city transferred control of Malton Airport to the federal government in exchange for a series of upgrades at the island airport, includng a runway extension, air traffic control facilities, a night lighting system, and new hangars with the intention of expanding the number of commercial passenger flights.

The STOLport idea arrived in the 1970s. The number of planes using the improved facilities at the island airport had started to fall and officials blamed a lack of a tunnel or bridge to the city and the lack of room to extend the runways for jets. The recent upgrades to Buttonville airport had grabbed some of the commuter business as well.

In all, the airport was losing about $300,000 a year in 1975 - $160,000 of it on operating the tiny ferry across the Western Channel alone - and wasn't expected to make it beyond 1976 on its various federal and provincial subsidies.

toronto island airportIn response to what was perceived as a death rattle from the island airport, the city floated an ambitious redevelopment scheme that would see the airport replaced with an offshore community of some 60,000 people.

Known as Harbour City, the idea came at a time when the city was busily working on Metro Centre, a plan to turn disused downtown railway lands into a mass of office space, commercial buildings, and apartments. (The only Metro Centre components ever realized were the CN Tower and Metro Toronto Convention Centre.)

Urbanist Jane Jacobs called Harbour City "probably the most important advance in planning for cities that has been made this century." The community would be built on little islands and stitched together by residential roads, lagoons, and canals between the airport and Ontario Place. All air activity would be shifted east to the Port Lands or Leslie Street Spit.

toronto island airportRather than build a replica of the old airport, aircraft manufacturer de Havilland Canada, which was then assembling its planes at Downsview, pitched the idea of a STOLport - short for "Short Take-Off and Landing Airport" - roughly opposite Cherry Beach.

Had it been built, it would have been extremely small, roughly half the size of the current Billy Bishop layout, and served 50-seater commuter planes capable of zipping between similar STOLports in urban centres as far as Chicago and Sault Ste. Marie.

The compact layout meant small cities could afford to build STOLports relatively cheaply, in doing so creating a network of local commuter airports across Ontario. Toronto alderman Thomas Harris saw the idea, which had the backing of the federal government, as a plan to build a southern version of NorOntario, the province's air transport network in Northern Ontario.

Federally-owned de Havilland said the ideal planes for the network of micro airports were (conveniently) its own new Dash 7s (officially DHC-7s), which were specially engineered for slow landings and quick take-offs. The aircraft, each powered by four Pratt and Whitney turboprop engines, would make as much noise as the Gardiner Expressway from 500 feet away, the company claimed.

toronto island airportAs proof of concept, six de Havilland Twin Otters, the precursor to the Dash 7s, were tried in a short take-off and landing test route between Rockcliffe Airport in Ottawa and the Victoria STOLport in Montreal, which was built in the Expo 67 parking lot, by Airtransit, a subsidiary of Air Canada.

The idea of commuter planes, even tiny ones, flying out of downtown Toronto wasn't without its detractors. "Opponents of Dash 7 say it is absorbing large sums of taxpayers' money [the federal government invested $80 million in the plane's development] to benefit a small number of traveling businessmen, and that basing it on the Toronto islands would have dire implications for the island and the Waterfront parks," wrote Toronto Star reporter Janice Dineen in 1975. "The argument is that a park is no place for an airport."

Mayor David Crombie was also a vocal opponent, citing environmental concerns on the waterfront. Local MPP Marion Bryden predicted the battle over the future of the Toronto island airport would be as big as the struggle against the Spadina expressway.

toronto island airportThe STOLport would have been linked to Leslie Street by a streetcar or rapid transit line and a road with a direct connection to the now-demolished portion of the Gardiner Expressway east of the Don River. If it couldn't be built mid-way along the spit, de Havilland suggested an alternative location in the Port Lands, just south of the turning basin.

As it happened, the idea of an completely new STOLport was relatively short-lived. The proposal did, however, evolve into the current island airport, albeit very slowly.

toronto island airportAfter years of back-and-forth over how the downtown airport should operate now it that Harbour City had fizzled, commuter airline City Express started a service between Montreal, Ottawa, and the Toronto island using turboprop Saunders planes.

In 1980, Voyageur Airways started flying to North Bay and Sudbury from downtown Toronto, too. Combined with training flights, the number of take-offs and landings started to increase. The first short-take off and landing Dash 7s, operated by City Express, arrived in 1984.

The tripartite agreement, signed by the City, the Ministry of Transportation and the Toronto Harbour Commissioners (now the Toronto Port Authority) in 1983, kept jets out, limited runway expansion, and ordered the island airport stay true to its name by keeping the world's shortest ferry ride.

The agreement also officially killed off the STOL principles lauded by de Havilland and the federal government during the previous decade. The Dash 8s Porter Airlines uses today were developed from the Dash 7s but without the special aerodynamic features that would have allowed them to use short runways.

The landing strip at Billy Bishop Airport, which the city will consider extending in 2015, is already almost exactly twice the length it would have been as a STOLport.

toronto island airportChris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images (in order): "Toronto Island Airport," Airmaps Limited, Toronto, 1940, Toronto Public Library, 988-9-9; "Proposed Harbour city plans, Island airport," de Havilland Canada, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 291, "Little Norway," 1940, Archives of Ontario, C 109-2-0-18

Discussion

5 Comments

Steeplejack / April 5, 2014 at 12:49 pm
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Couple of small quibbles. Airport was built 1938 and 1939 and opened in 1939. Not 1937. The amusement park was in decline and the stadium there was attracting few customers anymore. It's why the Maple Leaf Stadium was built on Bathurst Quay in 1926-- long before the airport was being considered for the island. Many of the residential buildings at the site were not simply razed, many were uprooted and transported over to Algonquin (once called Sunfish Island but enlarged by the Harbour Commission by about twice its original size in the 1920s)and eastern Wards Island where many of them are today.
As for the "little fighter planes" used by the Norwegians, only one type you mention were actually fighter planes, the Curtiss P-36 Hawks. The others were slow, basic trainers (the PT19s) and a kind of slow patrol bomber (Northrop). There were other aircraft used as well.
Aaron / April 5, 2014 at 05:29 pm
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Expand the Leslie Street Spit wider and place the Island Airport there. Makes sense. Fill up Tommy Thompson Park and the airport would be at least 4 times its current size. Less traffic congestion than the foot of Bathurst has, plenty of parking, close to Lakeshore, the DVP and downtown. Not as close to current urban development either.
Michael Greason / April 5, 2014 at 09:38 pm
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The island airport fills a niche - not universally accepted - but universally understood. It allows regional transport within Ontario and the nearby states for business or personal trips without the travel to and congestion of an International Airport - namely Pearson. While the debate continues about whether this facility and the connections it allows is valuable to Toronto or an unnecessary encumbrance - it is an entirely different debate than the onbe about turning this airport into a major international airport - largely if not exclusively for the benefit of one company. For people flying to sunspots in the islands, Florida, Las Vegas or LA we already have a perfectly good international airport. There is no reason why departing from downtown provides sufficient "added value" compared to the Pearson alternative. Toronto may benefit from a business person being able to go to a meeting in New York or Sudbury from downtown. There is no benefit to Toronto by having vacationers leave from the heart of what should be a vibrant mixed use waterfront.
stopitman replying to a comment from Aaron / April 6, 2014 at 10:53 am
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The bonus with the current airport location is that there are streetcars and buses there, plus it's much closer to the core (and all of the transit that affords). Leslie St is basically a no-mans land. I also don't think the TRCA would be amenable to losing their parkland (albeit built on top of garbage) to an airport.
tommy / April 7, 2014 at 12:55 pm
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And yet poor Downsview sits unused, with it's GO, subway, and highway access.

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