Eighty years later, at least one fight has finally been settled.
There’s still controversy over what kind of planes can use Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport — though jetliners appear to be a dead duck, at least for now — or even if an airport should be allowed so close to the condos along Queens Quay.
But the pedestrian tunnel is a going concern at last. It was being hotly debated even before the island airport, now rated Canada’s ninth busiest, came into being Feb. 4, 1939.
That’s when millionaire philanthropist and eccentric Harry Falconer McLean, of Montreal, landed in his private plane. The first commercial flight, an American Airlines DC-3, arrived Sept. 8 that year, carrying big-band leader Tommy Dorsey for a two-day gig at the CNE.
The flight, if not Dorsey, got a mention in the Toronto Daily Star four days later. Airline president C.R. Smith was also on the plane “and said no other city on the continent had such splendid airport facilities as Toronto …”
Originally known as Port George VI Island Airport and then Toronto City Centre Airport, it was renamed Nov. 10, 2009, in honour of Canadian First World War fighter ace Billy Bishop.
An airport was first proposed in 1929 but wasn’t given the go-ahead until six years later. It meant tearing down 54 cottages and Hanlan’s Point Amusement Park, noted for J.W. Gorman’s diving horses. The Star Weekly reported that they jumped from a platform 12 metres above the water “without a whip and with the horses’ own volition.”
Ottawa voted to spend $976,000 (about $17 million today) on a tunnel to the island.
Fiery former mayor Sam McBride was very much against this. But, after what the Star called a “long and acrimonious session,” council approved the project by 15 votes to seven. Councillor McBride told Mayor Jimmie Simpson, “You are no gentleman, you never were and you never will be. You are just an ordinary, cheap blatherskite.”
He may have lost the vote but McBride, who has an island ferry named after him, got his wish. William Lyon Mackenzie King, who won the federal election in October 1935, cancelled the tunnel two weeks after digging had begun.
But on July 9, 1937, councillors approved both the island site and Malton airport (now Pearson International, though it was originally meant only as a backup to the island).
Two days after Dorsey’s arrival, Canada joined the war that Britain had declared on Germany on Sept. 3. The airport was used for pilot training. Little Norway Park, at the foot of Bathurst St., commemorates the Royal Norwegian Air Force personnel who lived in barracks there between 1940 and 1943.
They included Sister Agnes, the “smiling blonde Lutheran nurse who has come from Norway to be their ‘Florence Nightingale,’” the Star reported.
A 48-passenger ferry was built to cross the 120-metre Western Gap channel. Hauled in each direction by cables attached to the docks, it stayed in service until 1963. The diesel boat that replaced it would institute the shortest scheduled ferry service in the world.
By 1954, air traffic to and from the U.S. was enough to justify a customs officer on duty weekdays during summer and fall. And in October 1957, a scheduled freight and passenger service began to St. Catharines, Brantford and Welland.
A runway extension and landing lights enabled night flying to begin in 1963.
The first mention of jetliners came in 1967 with a study to see if the island could accommodate big (and noisy) planes such as the DC-8. But this would have meant building a whole new airport.
In January 1975, the Star reported that Otonabee Airways (which became City Express) had begun a $38 three-times-a-day “commuter service” to Montreal. Even with a stop en route at Peterborough, the 19-seat Saunders ST-27 turboprop was only 17 minutes slower than an Air Canada Boeing 727 jet from Malton/Pearson, taking into account the travel time from downtown.
After a great deal of toing and froing, yes-ing and no-ing on whether STOL — short takeoff and landing — airliners should be allowed, a City Express Dash 7 began flying between Toronto and Ottawa in September 1984, making nine trips a day in each direction. A service to Montreal was added the following year.
The island airport also boasted Canada’s first female air traffic controller. Margaret Dunseith started in 1952, becoming, the Star reported, “the best-known voice in aviation radio in this country.”
She retired in 1980 and died two years later. In 1989, a new control tower was named in her honour.
Porter Airlines is now Billy Bishop Airport’s passenger-carrying mainstay. This reporter was on the inaugural flight to Ottawa on Oct. 23, 2006. The 70-seat Bombardier Q400 that left at 7 a.m. was only half-full but passengers applauded both the takeoff and landing.
About 30 anti-airport pickets gathered near the ferry terminal on Bathurst St. They included Adam Vaughan, now a Liberal MP but then a candidate for city council, who called the demonstration “funny … How do you protest something that no one is going to use?”
The 2.3 million passengers who currently pass through the airport every year might not agree with that statement. Fewer and fewer of those passengers also use the ferry; the pedestrian tunnel opened on July 30, 2015.
Flash back to McBride, who predicted that it would be a “stone around the taxpayer’s neck which would drag him into the grave.”
A grave case of tunnel vision.