The Past: A Brief History of the Ottawa International Airport

While the first powered flight over Ottawa occurred in 1911, it would be nearly the 1920s before the landing field at Bowesville Road would become known as the Hunt Club Field.

Early in its history, the Hunt Club Field made its mark in aviation. When Canada celebrated its Diamond Jubilee of Confederation in July 1927, aviator Charles Lindbergh arrived in his “Spirit of St. Louis” Ryan N-X-211, landing on the small field, welcomed by some 60,000 spectators. The historic visit was commemorated when the site was renamed Lindbergh Field.

With the incorporation of the Ottawa Flying Club on January 14th, 1928, the industry gained momentum; the first airport licence was granted to the Club on July 26th of the same year, and the airfield’s name was once again changed – this time to the Uplands Aerodrome.

In November 1936, the first Ministry of Transport was formed by the federal government, with C.D. Howe at the helm. Minister Howe was tasked with developing connections to the rest of the country and with the British Commonwealth. To accomplish this daunting task, he established Trans-Canada Airlines in April 1937. The success of Trans-Canada was contingent on establishing a cross-country service, which would require suitable landing fields along the way. The Ottawa Flying Club, not financially able to make the necessary improvements to the landing strip, eventually abandoned the site. Fortunately, Laurentian Air Services, one of the oldest bush flying services in Canada, saved the day when they leased the airfield site in 1937.

Over the next few years, enhancements were made to the site by Laurentian Air, including a hangar and other facilities, and the Ottawa Flying Club returned to the site under an extended lease. Ultimately, the work required to serve Trans-Canada proved too much and the Department of Transport purchased the 300-acre aerodrome from Laurentian Air. DOT set about, almost immediately, to construct new facilities and two hard-surfaced runways. On August 20th, 1938, Transport Minister Howe cut the ribbon inaugurating the Uplands Airport.

With the outbreak of World War II, the Department of National Defence acquired the airport land and established its own facilities. Uplands became a Service Flying Training School for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and additional lands to the east of the airport were acquired for the eventual construction of five hangars and a military camp.

On August 1st, 1940, the British Commonwealth Air Training Program School opened at Uplands. The sky was filled with RCAF Harvards and various other training aircraft during the war, and many earned their wings and took their newfound talent to the skies over Europe.

At the end of the war, the military activity at Uplands did not diminish. In fact, with Canada’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Ottawa was set to become an important base for international flights. Runways 14/32 and 07/25 at 8,800 and 6,200 feet respectively, became operational at the end of 1951. One of the more enduring military roles that played out at Uplands was the 412 Squadron of the RCAF, which provided transport for many important visitors to the nation’s capital.

By the end of the 1950s, combined military and civilian traffic gave Uplands the distinction of having the highest volume of aircraft movements of any Canadian airport, and made the air traffic control tower the busiest in the country. An amazing 307,079 takeoffs and landings were recorded in 1959 alone.

Catering to civilian travel
Construction of the airport terminal building began in 1957. As the project neared completion, a military demonstration proved disastrous; a U.S. Airforce F104 Starfighter broke the sound barrier and virtually every window in the structure. There was also significant structural damage inflicted on the building. This mishap added approximately one year to the construction schedule, and $300,000 to the budget of $5 million. The terminal was finally opened by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on June 30th, 1960.

The terminal, which was designed by local architects Gilleland and Strutt, was built to accommodate up to 900,000 passengers per year. To better accommodate different aircraft, the two main runways were extended in 1961; 14/32 to 10,000 feet and 07/25 to 8,000 feet.

The airport’s official designation was changed to Ottawa International Airport on August 24th, 1964.

1975 was an important year for the region and the airport; the National Capital Commission opened the Airport Parkway, as an extension of Bronson Avenue, thereby providing a vital link between the community and the airport.

By 1980, approximately 2 million passengers per year were travelling through the airport – more than double its capacity. A renovation plan was announced in 1982 and ultimately unveiled in 1986. The renovated space included extensive use of skylights, glass and steel. According to architect Patrick Murray, “we wanted to bring back the excitement of coming to the airport”.

Further evolution included the airport’s control tower and radar service moving to the Combined Air Navigation Facility and Regional Training Centre, located off Limebank Road, in 1991.

In June 1993, the federal government officially renamed the airport Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International in honour of two of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation.

Over to the Community
In the early 1990s, the federal government recognized the need for a national system comprised of safe, efficient and effective airports that would meet the needs of the communities they serve. To meet that need, the National Airports Policy was introduced in 1992. The Policy was officially launched in 1994 with the creation of local airport authorities across the country. Under the plan, the federal government would maintain its role as the regulator, but would change its role from owner/operator to owner/landlord.

The Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport Authority (OMCIAA) was established on February 1st, 1997 after the assembly of a 14-member, community-based Board of Directors which was tasked with overseeing the management of the airport. More commonly referred to as the Ottawa International Airport Authority (OIAA or the Authority), the organization is part of a 26-airport National Airports System.

Winds of Change
When the keys to the airport were handed over in a ceremony on February 4th, 1997, the Authority immediately set out to make needed improvements to the infrastructure and terminal building. A $5 million airside improvement plan was developed, with the first phase including $1.2 million restoration of the primary taxiway. Other improvements made during the first year included accessible ramps, new restrooms, new duty free shops and refurbished retail and concession spaces.

The Airport Authority has invested more than $500 million in building and infrastructure projects since 1997 as follows:

Project Cost Year Completed
U.S. Preclearance $3 million 1997
Hendrick Building $7 million 2000
Passenger Terminal Building - Phase 1 $310 million 2003
Passenger Terminal Building - Phase 2 $95 million 2008
Parking Expansion(s) $60 million 2004/2005/2010
Field Electrical Centre/Runway Lighting $4 million 2010
Snow Removal Equipment/Fire Trucks $11 million 2010
Runway Rehabilitation: 04-22/07-25/14-32 $46 million 2011/2012/2014 
Boarding Bridge Replacement $10 million 2015/2016
Baggage Handling System $34 million 2015/2016
Terminal Gate Modifications $7 million 2016/2017
Total     $587 million  

As noted above, the Authority completed a $310 million construction project on a new state-of-the-art, 650,000 square foot Passenger Terminal Building, which opened for business on October 12th of 2003. Built with the community in mind, the award-winning facility is open, filled with natural light, and intuitively easy to navigate through. An adjacent Parkade was also built, much to the delight of passengers. In fact, it proved so popular that it has required expansion on three occasions.

Passenger traffic has risen significantly since the opening of the Passenger Terminal Building. The accelerated growth resulted in saturation at peak times, and as a result, the Authority expanded the domestic and international holdroom to accommodate 12 new gates. Airport Expansion Program Phase II (AEP II) broke ground in August of 2006, and was completed in December, 2008.

The various projects have been carried out carefully, according to conservative projections, and they were all finished on time and within the set budget. The Authority is not in the business of overbuilding, but rather meeting operational and customer needs in a manner that is fiscally responsible. Many other investments have been made to improve the operating efficiency of the airport and to enhance safety and security for passengers, employees, aircraft and other assets on the airfield.