Iqaluit airfield receives engineering honour

On June 10, 2017, the Iqaluit airfield received Canadian Society for Civil Engineering (CSCE) board approval for dedication as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

This photo of the Iqaluit airfield shows its original and 1987 terminals. The original airfield hangar was built in 1943 and still remains in use today. Kenneth Johnson Photo
This photo of the Iqaluit airfield shows its original and 1987 terminals. The original airfield hangar was built in 1943 and still remains in use today. Kenneth Johnson Photo
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Located in Nunavut’s capital city, the Iqaluit airfield is the gateway to one of the biggest communities in Canada, which is only accessible year-round by air and by boat during the summer (July through October). The facility was nominated for engineering landmark status by Kenneth Johnson, a northern civil engineering history buff, who has already initiated five other historical designations, including the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, and the Alaska Highway.

“I’ve been interested in nominating a civil engineering project in Nunavut for over a decade, but with the young history of the region there did not seen to be an appropriate project with the history needed for consideration by the CSCE,” said Johnson.

And then he stumbled across the Iqaluit airfield, with a history dating back 75 years.

Originally named Crystal II, the airfield was built in 1942 by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) as part of the Crimson Route during the Second World War. “Crimson” was code for Canada. It was used for transportation purposes during the Battle of the Atlantic and into the 1950s, when the Royal Canadian Air Force and then the Government of Canada’s Department of Transportation  took control and began operating it as a civilian facility.

“From its origins as an airfield to serve the ferrying of aircraft from North America to Europe, Crystal II, then Frobisher Bay (1964), and finally Iqaluit (1987), [the airfield] has experienced a remarkable 75-year history,” said Johnson.

John Hawkins, director of the Iqaluit airport, added that as the Second World War ended, the facility shifted its focus to become a strategic communications centre, a support base for Distant Early Warning sites, a tanker base for long-range military operations, and a critical connection between the Arctic and the rest of Canada.

The airfield was originally built within two years, and was the first major construction project in Canada in the region with continuous permafrost.

“The work undertaken to build the Iqaluit airfield was completed under very remote operating conditions at the time,” noted Johnson in his nomination letter. “The construction window was a very narrow window due to the Arctic weather; the earth moving construction had to deal with permafrost, which was an entirely new condition at the time.”

Hawkins agreed. “I’ve worked on projects in Nunavut for a lot of years myself, and it is astounding to me how much effort it would have taken to put a project like this together in two years. I think really only military effort could have done it. The mobilization must have been astounding.”

The original airfield hangar was built in 1943 and still remains in use today.

“The Iqaluit airfield has a unique history, and has played significant and rapidly evolving roles in world affairs and international air travel,” said Hawkins. “Most recently, it has been instrumental in shaping Canada’s north and the present day Nunavut territory.”

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Johnson also noted that every couple of years, original equipment manufacturers such as Airbus use the airfield to conduct cold weather testing on aircraft.

He prepared and submitted the nomination documentation on behalf of the Cold Regions Engineering Division to the History Committee of the CSCE, and it was accepted in February.

“I am now working with the History Committee and the Government of Nunavut to finalize the wording for a bronze plaque (about 70 words),” said Johnson. “This plaque will be unique because it will contain four translations of the wording [English, French, Inuktitut, and Inuinnaqtun] instead of the usual two.”

Over the last four or five years, the airfield has been undergoing transformative changes, which include the addition of two new taxiways, a new terminal building and a new combined services building, which will replace the old fire hall complex.

“In the last four or five years we have been relocating the local, domestic operation, which is all we do here now–[there is] little military presence here now–so we are actually relocating it to what was primarily the military apron,” said Hawkins.

A ceremony to unveil the plaque and the new terminal is expected to take place this fall.

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