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Abandoned aerodrome once played an important role in Canadian military aviation

The Rivers Banner
8 September 2008
(Updated May 2016)

Longtime residents of the Rivers area will probably remember a time when the air buzzed with the sound of RCAF aircraft from an airfield south-west of Rivers. Early in the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Air Force entered into an ambitious project: the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, an astounding program that saw 130,000 personnel from Great Britain and the Commonwealth graduate from 107 training schools across Canada.  One such station would be RCAF Station Rivers, situated 250 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

Originally opened in November 1940 as the new home of No. 1 Air Navigation School (No. 1 ANS), originally formed at RCAF Station Trenton.  One reason for locating the school near Rivers was due to the generally cloudless skies, making it ideal for astronavigation training.

The school had all the amenities of an RCAF training school including hangars, a drill hall, administration buildings, a medical inspection room, mess halls, classrooms and H-hut barracks, although unlike most RCAF stations, some were 2 story H-huts.  The airfield consisted of 3 runways in a triangle pattern.

By February of 1941, the staff complement consisted of 56 officers and 424 airmen.  The following month, the first of the Commonwealth trainees arrived in Rivers from Australia and New Zealand.

In May 1942,  No. 2 ANS re-located to Rivers from Pennfield Ridge, New Brunswick and merged with No. 1 ANS to become No. 1 Central Navigation School (No. 1 CNS).

As the war progressed, Rivers also became a training centre for Army pilots and parachutists, as well as flying instructors from the Army, RCN and RCAF. Additionally, the the Air Support Signal Unit, Royal Canadian Corps of Signals (later down scaled to a Troop) and the Air Dispatch School were stationed at Rivers.

By the time No. 1 CNS disbanded in August 1945, the combined total of navigators trained by both No. 1 ANS and No. 1 CNS had reached 11, 406 navigators.

RCAF Station Rivers would remain open after the war, becoming part of the post-war RCAF.  Over the preceding years, several new buildings would spring up at Rivers, including a central heating plant, a new arch hangar, Permanent Married Quarters and a school for dependent children.

Several new units began operations at Rivers in 1947, including the Parachute School. The Canadian Parachute Training Centre, originally established at Camp Shilo in 1942, re-located to RCAF Station Rivers and merged with the Joint Air School, which had been founded at Rivers in 1947, becoming the Airborne School and making Rivers Canada’s main para-training centre.  The school was renamed the Canadian Joint Air Training Centre in April 1949.

Also in 1947, the Army Aviation Tactical Training School was established at Rivers to provide pilot training to Army aviators, as well as helicopter instructor training for the Army, RCN and RCAF. No. 6 Signal Regiment, Royal Canadian Corps of Signals and the Air Support Signal Unit (later down scaled to a Troop) provided communications duties at Rivers. 444 Air Observation Post Squadron was formed on 1 October 1947, but had a brief stay at the station as it disbanded 1 April 1949.

In 1948, the Joint Air Photo Interpretation School opened at RCAF Station Rivers. The school closed in 1960 and its personnel merged with the Air Photo Interpretation Centre at RCAF Station Rockcliffe, who became fully responsible for training photo-interpreters.

The Basic Helicopter Training Unit (BHTU) was established at RCAF Station Rivers in August 1953, initially to train RCAF pilots, but after the closure of the helicopter school at RCN Air Station HMCS Shearwater, the Royal Canadian Navy began sending trainees to Rivers as well.

In 1956, with the Royal Canadian Navy having recently acquired its first fighter jet, the F2H3 Banshee, pilots from VF 870 and VF 871 Squadrons were also sent to Rivers for training. The RCN training program at Rivers continued until the disbandment of VF 871 Squadron in 1962.

Army helicopter pilots also began training at Rivers when the Army Aviation Tactical Training School (AATTS) was formed in the summer of 1961.

The first helicopter employed by military forces in Canada was the RCAF’s Sikorsky H-5 (S-51) in 1947. RCAF Station Rivers used the H-5 as a rotary wing trainer, but it was also used by the Royal Canadian Air Force in search and rescue roles.

In December 1963, No. 1 Transport Helicopter Platoon (No. 1 THP), a unit of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, was established at RCAF Station Rivers, along with their fleet of CH-113A Voyageur transport helicopters and one CH-112 Nomad. The platoon’s function was to support the Army on field exercises. No. 1 THP moved to RCAF Station St. Hubert in 1966, but also established a detachment at RCAF Station Namao. In 1968, No. 1 THP was re-designated 450 (Heavy Transport) Helicopter Squadron.

408 Tactical Fighter Squadron, whose primary functions were reconnaissance and weapons delivery, moved to Rivers in 1964 from RCAF Station Rockcliffe, and remained until disbanded on 1 April 1970.

Rivers was also the home of the Airborne Section, Trials and Evaluation Establishment from 1965 to 1970.

As a result of the Unification, RCAF Station Rivers was re-named CFB Rivers.

The main ramps and runways 08-26 and 13-31 were resurfaced during 1969 and 1970.  However, with the recent introduction of the Canadair CF-5 Freedom Fighter into service, the runways at Rivers proved to be too short to handle the new jet. precipitating the eventual demise of the base itself.

With the Unification of the Forces in the mid 1960s, a reorganization and consolidation occurred within the Canadian Military. Numerous bases across the country were downsized to detachments of other bases or declared surplus to defence needs and closed. CFB Rivers fell into the latter category and was slated for closure.

All remaining training schools also wound down their operations at Rivers and either disbanded or re-located to other bases across Canada.

No. 4 Fighter Training School (formerly the BHTU and the AATTS) re-located to CFB Portage La Prairie in July 1970 and the Canadian Parachute Training Centre moved to CFB Edmonton, home to the Canadian Airborne Regiment.

CFB Rivers closed in September 1971, ending almost 3 decades of service to the Royal Canadian Air Force.

In September 1972, the land was turned over to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and the site became the home of the Oo-Za-We-Kwun Centre, a vocational training centre for Manitoba Indians that trained over 10, 000 people.

There were four factories on the property: Edson Industries, a truck camper and trailer manufacturer,  Arnold Manufacturing, who produced fiberglass furniture for restaurants, Sekine Cycle, a Japanese bicycle manufacturer and Tim-Br-Fab Industries, a producer of prefabricated homes and the only company still in business today. These industries were required to hire at least 25% First Nations employees.

The Oo-Za-We-Kwun Centre closed in 1980, having trained over 10, 000 students.

Although the RCAF had departed, the Rivers Gliding School, a summer Air Cadet glider camp, was established in 1974, continuing the tradition of training young airmen and airwomen at Rivers.

The Air Force would formally make a return to Rivers in 1982 with the establishment of the Canadian Forces Air Reserve National Training School, a summer training centre.  Courses conducted included General Military Training 1 & 2, Admin Clerk TQ3, Common Aircraft Servicing, Common Mechanical Training, Common Basic Electrical Training for aircraft trades as well as Base Defence Force/ Aid to the Civil Power Training.

The Air Reserve school was run in the old hospital building, the two story barracks and h-huts adjacent to the hospital and utilizing several ” officers row” PMQs.

The school Commandant in 1982 was Capt Al Palmer and the SWO was WO Ron Pruden.  In 1983, the Commandant was Maj Glen Emerson and the SWO was MWO Ron Pruden. The original intent with the enlarged training program in 1983 was to reopen a large part of the base for the Youth Temporary Employment Program, but this never came to fruition.

After only 2 summers, the Air Reserve National Training School closed in August 1983, followed in 1984 by the Rivers Gliding School, which re-located to CFB Gimli, officially ending a 4 decade-long Air Force presence at Rivers.

The land was put up for sale by the Federal Government.  In the interim, the former station was made available for various community uses.

Larry and Bonnie Friesen purchased the land and opened Hangar Farms Ltd. in 1988, a hog-farm operation, later changing the name to Aero Farms.  The hangars and some of the barracks were used for livestock and equipment storage.  As the years went by, many of the buildings and PMQs were either demolished or left to deteriorate and crumble.  Two of the WWII-era hangars were destroyed by fire.

In 2010, Aero Farms owner Larry Friesen died when he about 21 feet to his death while working on a roof of one of the hangars. The hog operation ceased in 2011 and the site sat vacant, with the remaining buildings rapidly crumbling until 2013, when 2 companies bought the property.

Springland Manufacturing, a manufacturer of grain handling equipment and commercial storage bins, took over the buildings and the runways.  The rest of the land is farmland.

Only small parts of the old air station remain today including old supply buildings, one of the World War-era hangars, the recreation centre, the pool, the gunnery backstop, power plant, fire hall, 3 of the two-story H-huts, ruins of the messes, five permanent married quarters (PMQs) and assorted utility buildings.

The old firehall has been restored and now serves as the company and engineering offices for Springland Manufacturing.  The recreation centre was also restored and used for fertilizer storage, as is hangar #5, one of 2 remaining WWII-era hangars 450 Helicopter Squadron.  Hangar #6, the “Arch” hangar, formerly occupied by 408 Tactical Fighter Squadron, was also cleaned up and restored for future use.

The WWII hangar with the control tower. was destroyed by a fire in 2014.

The entire airfield remains although a reservoir sits across one of the runways. Although the runways were listed as abandoned many years ago, they continued to see occasional use by airplanes for aerial spraying and firefighting flights operated by Springland.  The airfield had previously been used by Pacific Western Airlines in 1982 while the runways at the Brandon Airport were being resurfaced.

Springland Manufacturing will be expanding their operations at the Rivers site over the next few years and are re-locating many assets from their other site at the Lepp family farm north of Rivers, where the company was founded in 1985.

In the early 1990s, the RCAF returned to Rivers with the help of some movie magic in the film “For The Moment”, a film about an Australian pilot who comes to Manitoba to train under the BCATP, starring Russell Crowe. While most of the movie was filmed at the Brandon Airport, scenes of the actors standing outside their barracks were filmed at Rivers, requiring a fresh coat of green paint to be applied to the old buildings.

Also of note in the history of Rivers is the story of the “Rivers Bell”. The “Rivers Bell” was a gift from the Royal Canadian Navy to the Canadian Joint Air Training Centre at RCAF Station Rivers in November 1951 and bell hung in the Officers’ Mess. The bell was stolen in 1955 by visiting personnel from RCAF Station Moose Jaw, who transported it back to their mess back in Moose Jaw.

The Base Commander at Rivers, Group Captain Jack Sproule, was none too happy about this turn of events. To rectify the situation G/C Sproule led a “rescue party”, to retrieve their bell when visiting Moose Jaw one weekend in September 1955. When re-installed in the Officers’ Mess at Rivers, the bell secured so well, that when RCAF Station Rivers closed in 1971, LCOL Bill Svab, who designed the “security measures”, had to be consulted on its removal. The “Rivers Bell” was then re-located to the Officers’ Mess at RCAF Station Portage La Prairie, where it remains today.

Another link to River’s RCAF past is the Captain Kenneth Young Memorial Award, an annual award that recognizes the most proficient rural Royal Canadian Air Cadet squadron in Manitoba. The award is named after Captain Kenneth Young, a RCAF pilot who was killed in a helicopter crash at CFB Rivers (now closed) on 10 June 1970.  A former air cadet himself, Captain Young was the Senior Air Cadet Liaison Officer at CFB Rivers at the time of his death.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/a-history-of-rivers-air-base/

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