Friday, 15 June 2018 06:37

Airport refuse dump reveals details about history of wartime flying training school

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Archaeological surveys over two summers at the Swift Current Airport have provided more information about the airfield's history and use as a flying training school during the Second World War.


Information about the archaeological investigation was revealed during a presentation by Western Heritage project archaeologist Cara Pollio at the Swift Current Museum, May 23.
This project has been very different from the typical archaeological survey she will carry out for clients.
“Every site is its own thing, but this is a pretty unique location,” she said. “We have a lot of experience with doing historic sites but how often does a World War Two airport refuse dump come up? So it’s a unique set of challenges, for sure, but it’s extremely interesting.”
Western Heritage is a consulting company specializing in archaeology and heritage management. It was commissioned by the Swift Current Museum to carry out the work at the airport.
According to Swift Current Museum Director and Curator Lloyd Begley this type of project at an airfield has not been done before.
“This is the first archeological project at an aerodrome in Canada,” he said. “There has been other aviation sites that have been explored, but in terms of the history and the story.”
The museum has already done a lot of work to record the history of the airfield, especially its use as a flying training school during the Second World War. This archaeological investigation was therefore the next step to learn more about the airfield's past.
“Like anything else that we do here it’s all really about the story,” he said. “People always knew about the existence of the airfield and the aerodrome and what took place there, but it’s important to do this to document the items that we find and then to use those items to tell the continuing story of the importance of the airbase. So ultimately whatever comes out of the ground will be exhibited and with that goes the story of No. 39 Service Flying Training School.”
The history of the airport dates back to 1937, when it was developed as an emergency stop for the proposed Trans-Canada Airlines. During the Second World War the airfield served as a British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) facility to train Allied aircrews.
The No. 39 Service Flying Training School at Swift Current was one of 105 BCATP training bases across Canada. It opened in December 1941 and closed in March 1944. At any time there were as many as 1,000 people working at the base, including trainees, instructors and support staff.
In 2012 the Swift Current Museum produced a video about the flying training school. Roy Spence, a former soldier who worked at the airfield for most of the war, was featured in the video. He told Begley about a pit at the aerodrome where a variety of items, including airplane parts, were discarded and buried.
Begley therefore requested Western Heritage to find the disposal pit. The project started in the summer of 2015, when a geophysical survey was done of an area of just over two acres in the vicinity of a large junk pile.
This junk pile was used as a dump site by local residents after the closure of the flying training school and it therefore contains artifacts from different time periods. The geophysical survey used ground penetrating (GP) radar and magnetometry to identify two areas of interest. One is  near the southwest corner of the junk pile and the other was at the north end of the junk pile.
During the summer of 2016 three trenches were dug in the areas of interest. A variety of artifacts were recovered from each trench that relates to disposal of items at different time periods.
Some items such as flakes and tools were found that dates back to the pre-contact period when the area was inhabited by indigenous people.
Artifacts from one trench are related to items that were probably used in the mess hall of the flying training school. The artifacts in the second trench were refuse from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and the third trench contained airplane parts and chunks of metal.
Pollio believes any future excavations will probably find more of the same materials in each area that was investigated during this initial survey.
“I think there is probably a lot of material,” she said. “In the outer anomaly I would expect a lot more material from the mess hall, hopefully more material from living areas. So that’s hopefully a cache of that sort of material, which would be great.”
From the investigation it was clear that there is a pit beneath the junk pile, but they were not able to determine how deep it is.
“You kind of need a flat surface to run that GP cart over,” she explained. “Also, it would end up just being a huge bright spot on it anyway because with that ton of stuff in there. So there wouldn’t be too much information to get from doing near-surface geophysics, and we couldn’t really do a trench into the junk pile because it would have ended up destroying material while we were doing it, because there are so many large pieces of plane and metal and stuff like that. We would have to be bit more careful with going in there.”
Artifacts found so far by this archeological survey will be part of a future exhibition being prepared by the Swift Current Museum. It will be located in an exhibition space made available to the museum in one of the remaining hangers from the flying training school at the airport.
The museum plans to continue with archeological excavations that will use the findings of this initial survey. The intention is to collaborate with Western Heritage and the local chapter of the Saskatchewan Archeological Society.
There might be some funding available to continue the excavations as an academic project by a post-graduate student.
An option that will be considered is to include a public component to future excavations to give local residents an opportunity to be a part of the project. Pollio believes there is real value in a public archaeology component.
“If you’re doing a special project like this, people are so interested because it’s literally the history of the people who live here and so they’re really invested in this kind of stuff,” she said.
This project by the museum about the history of the airport also includes a plan to rebuild a Second World War bomber.
In December the remains of an Avro Anson, a twin-engined aircraft used to train aircrews at  No. 39 Service Flying Training School, were relocated to the airport from a farmer's field just south of Swift Current. The museum is aware of other similar aircraft in the area.
At the end of the war the RCAF scrapped and sold these aircraft to farmers, who cannibalized them for parts.
“The plan is that out of the three or possibly more that we uncover we’re going to rebuild an Anson,” Begley said. “It will never fly, but it will be a static display.”

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Matthew Liebenberg

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