The Sault Ste. Marie Airport has served as a highly important link from the community to other parts of Ontario – mainly to Toronto, and from there, to all of Canada, the U.S. and the rest of the world – for nearly 60 years.
Like the International Bridge, many people, perhaps, have taken it for granted.
But of course, there was a time when it didn’t exist.
An announcement in May 2021 of millions of dollars in funding to modernize the airport’s runways led to a conversation with a Sault man who took part in construction of the airport’s runway in the early 1960s.
“That’s what I came to Sault Ste. Marie for,” said Fraser MacDonald, speaking to SooToday.
MacDonald worked as a civil engineer in New Glasgow, N.S. before arriving in the Sault to work on the project.
“I was to be here for one year and I’ve been here ever since,” he chuckled, he and his wife choosing to settle and work in the Sault.
“I liked the area. It’s a beautiful area.”
MacDonald said there was a sense of excitement among the crew that built the airport as the Sault began to grow dramatically as a city in those days, with business booming at Algoma Steel and the construction of the International Bridge.
Recalling that era, MacDonald said “there was a feeling of ‘it’s about time’.''
“The airport runway was a wonderful place to pave, with a terrific base. The airport had the smoothest runway in Canada . . . it was the first airport project I did. It was an easy airport to do.”
It was announced by the Department of Transport in Ottawa in November 1962 that construction of a new, permanent two-storey Sault airport would begin the following spring.
Original plans for the terminal were revised, the department said, the new building to be “less showy” and “more simplified” while still meeting the community’s service requirements.
The department opened construction bids for the original terminal building in May 1961. Of six tenders received, the lowest had a price tag of $699,980, submitted by Newman Brothers of St. Catharines.
Considered too pricey, that contract was withdrawn.
To cut that cost, the Department of Transport revised its plans for the airport by opting to move the public waiting area and restaurant, originally intended to be on a second floor, to a single ground floor.
The airport plan included air navigational aids, a meteorological station, telecommunications, a workshop, control tower, customs and immigration offices and office space for Trans-Canada Airlines (as Air Canada was called back then).
Construction time for the terminal was estimated to be 12 months.
The new, permanent Sault Ste. Marie Airport was officially opened May 23, 1964 with Transport Minister J.W. Pickersgill and nearly 300 guests in attendance, a flaming torch used to cut a steel ribbon to mark the opening.
After revisions to the original plan, the terminal was built for $415,000.
A previous Sault airport was opened to the public August 1, 1961, linking the city with Toronto, Thunder Bay and other communities.
At that time, passengers had to wait to board planes in a hut.
Air travellers complained the hut was uncomfortable and cramped, stating they had to stand outside the building on cold days as they waited to be processed through the ticket office or collecting baggage after disembarking from an incoming flight.
The new airport, at first, did not have the familiar control tower we see today.
Computerized air traffic control systems were controlled remotely from Toronto.
The tower, built for $115,000, officially opened Sept. 3, 1970.
The addition of the tower was ‘a must’ as air traffic at the terminal had increased 350 per cent since the airport’s 1964 opening.
Before the tower opened with a three-member team on duty, the airport’s air traffic controllers temporarily performed their work for two months in a cramped mobile unit located on the back of a Transport Canada transport truck.
The tower’s staff worked in close cooperation with counterparts at Kincheloe Air Force Base in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which closed in 1977.
Nav Canada, in April 2021, reversed its decision to look into cutting back operations in a ‘streamlining’ move at the Sault Airport tower along with those at airports in six other communities across Canada.
If the control tower at the Sault Airport had shut down, pilots would have received air traffic information from other sources but would have still been mainly on their own during takeoff or landing.
A new radar unit went into operation at the airport March 30, 1972 as part of the Department of Transport’s program to cover all of Canada with radar surveillance.
The airport has seen some drama, both real and simulated.
In June 1979, a mock air disaster scenario was played out, designed by Transport Canada to see if the city of Sault Ste. Marie was equipped to handle such an emergency.
The scenario involved the ‘crash’ of an airliner with a crew of five and 105 passengers which crashed at the northern end of the runway.
‘Injured air crash victims’ were laid out around the scene of the simulated crash, those people moaning and crying for help. Those people were theatre students from Bawating Collegiate instructed to play the roles of air crash victims. Makeup artists gave the students the appearance of having flesh injuries, the actors’ clothing ripped and tattered.
Three school buses were used to look like the remains of a crashed aircraft.
Oil drums, located 90 metres from the scene, were electronically detonated to simulate an aircraft explosion, the sound of the explosion heard several kilometres away, thick black smoke rising into the air.
A Sault Airport fire truck was on scene in less than one minute. Sault Fire Services, police, ambulances and Sault Search and Rescue were on scene more than 10 minutes after being contacted. Officials from those services knew of the event beforehand but were deliberately not told the exact time it would happen.
Medical staff carried the ‘injured’ to ambulances and took them to the Sault’s two hospitals for ‘emergency treatment.’
The entire operation took six hours.
At the time, Transport Canada would select a city every year to carry out such a disaster scenario, the Sault picked in 1979.
Though the public was notified beforehand, some people thought the mock up was real.
Phone calls were placed to Sault hospitals by some members of the public that a disaster had occurred.
The scenario was described as having been for the benefit of both the airport and Sault hospitals.
In a real life incident, well known CBC broadcaster Knowlton Nash was one of 75 passengers forced to wait a few unexpected extra hours in the Sault due to a bomb threat Sept. 28, 1972.
A flight from Montreal to Edmonton landed in the Sault after a bomb threat was received in Toronto from an anonymous caller.
No bomb was found by investigators, the passengers eventually allowed to continue their journey.
Anti-hijack security began at the airport in February 1973, security guards beginning metal detector checks on passengers departing from the Sault on all Air Canada flights, as well as those of other airlines.
Motorists began paying for parking at the airport beginning in August 1978.
At the time, parking fees consisted of metered parking for 30 minutes for 25 cents, parking lot rates being 25 cents for each hour, two dollars for a 24 hour period and eight dollars for a week.
For decades, the federal government operated the airport.
Control of the facility was transferred by the government under its National Airports Policy to the Sault Ste. Marie Airport Development Corporation (SSMADC) in 1998.
“The City of Sault Ste. Marie decided at the time that they didn’t want to operate an airport. It was an airport that was losing a million dollars a year, roughly. They were collecting grants in lieu of taxes, so the time came when there was nobody to operate the airport. No one else was stepping up so our corporation was formed in April of 1996,” said Terry Bos, SSMADC president and CEO, speaking to SooToday.
The SSMADC board of directors "determined that with some changes in the way it was operated that they could see a way to operate the airport, so they negotiated an agreement with the federal government to take over operation of the airport.”
Receiving some operational and capital funding from the federal government, SSMADC officially took over operation of the Sault Ste. Marie Airport March 27, 1998.
Bos came onboard in February 1999 to help with an airport master plan, later becoming SSMADC president and CEO.
There were some fears within the community when the federal government withdrew its control of the airport.
It was feared by some that Sault Airport firefighters would lose their jobs, estimating it would take Sault Fire Services based on Second Line approximately 15 minutes to reach an airport blaze should one occur.
It was also feared by some that the community would lose the airport altogether.
However, Bos said the SSMADC team, since the 1990s, has not only ensured the airport has survived, but also thrived with thousands of passengers passing through the airport annually, and is now eager to return to normal in a post-pandemic world, the aviation industry hit very hard by COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“The corporation and the board of directors have always been there. They knew there was a strong enough business case put together that they could pull this off. The team that was put together did the job and we’re still here today. We’ve survived a pandemic which, maybe now, seems to be turning.”
“Needless to say we’re not losing a million dollars a year. We found a way to get to that break-even standpoint and put away enough funds to get us through this pandemic that’s been devastating our industry for 15 months,” Bos said.
“The runway is 1960s vintage. It’s a lot older than any runway that we’re aware of. These days runways generally last 15, 20, maybe 25 years,” said Bos, praising airport staff for getting 60 years of service from the Sault airport runway due to diligent maintenance.
The airport’s terminal was significantly renovated and expanded in the 1980s, that achievement marked with an official opening ceremony held Sept. 20, 1985, attended by then-Sault MP and International Trade Minister James Kelleher.
SSMADC owns the entire 1,684 acre airport property.
The airport corporation itself has about 15 staff members, Bos estimating the airport’s tenants include approximately 300 employees.
The corporation’s tenants, a huge source of revenue, include aircraft maintenance company JD Aero, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), the Sault College aviation program, Air Canada, Bearskin Airlines, Porter Airlines, car rental agencies, limo and cab companies, the Shabby Motley Cafe, Nav Canada, GardaWorld security services, aviation repair company Humphrey Aircraft Services, Sault Academy of Flight, Executive Aviation Fuels, Runway Park and a number of other private tenants.
“Certainly it’s a major economic driver for the city of Sault Ste. Marie. Cargo and passengers come in and out of here. A lot of MedEvac flights come in and out of here so it’s a big life support for a lot of people to get the medical service they need,” Bos said.
The main runway went through an overhaul in 2001, with more work scheduled to begin on the crosswind runway this summer with $9 million in funding from Transport Canada and nearly $5 million from the Sault Airport’s own capital budget.
“The airport means a lot to me. I’ve spent the last 22 years of my life here. The airport’s really a part of my family. We’ve accomplished a lot,” Bos said.
- with files from the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library (SSMPL)