History of Dorval Airport Chronicled
BY ANDY GURAL
If you ask Don McVicar why he writes about Canada's aviation history, he explains it
plainly."If I don't write it, the history will be lost."
So over the years, the Dorval resident has been busy. Two weeks ago his 13th book
on the subject that has been the passion of his life rolled off the presses.
Dorval Airport covers the history of the urban airfield from its Second
World War ground-breaking to its future.
McVicar first came to Dorval when the war broke out and the Canadian and British
governments decided to build the airport.
"Ferry Command delivered aircraft from the factory, through Dorval airport, to
overseas destinations in Europe, Africa and Asia, wherever the Allies were winning,"
McVicar was born in Oxbow, Sask., in 1915 and became a pilot in 1935. When war
broke out, he was sent to Dorval and witnessed the building of the airfield.
McVicar's research for the airport's history, particularly the period immediately after
the war, was relatively easy given that he started a business on the field. World-Wide
Airways provided charter, freight and passenger flights around the globe, McVicar
In its early days as a civil airport, the Spartan buildings handled about 150 passengers
comfortably, McVicar said. Soon, passenger and baggage handling facilities had to be
developed and expanded as air travel became less exotic and less expensive.
When the first take-off strip was built in 1941, 5,000 feet was considered long, he
said. In the 1950s, airline jets needed more room and a 7,000-foot runway was constructed
at Dorval. Now, the airport has strips as long as 11,000 feet to accommodate jumbojets.
The last chapter of McVicar's book deals with the airport's future. The former pilot
believes Dorval's future is healthy, unlike many other Canadian airports. Notably, the
transfer of international flights to the island will increase the facility's usefulness.
The noise pollution issue, shouldn't be ignored, he said, but is somewhat of a red
"Everyone lives close to an airport in Canada," he said, noting that railroads,
autoroutes and shipping ports all generate noise and are part of the price of doing business.
McVicar said his goal was to make the text interesting to younger generations from
whom the Second World War is increasingly distant history.
Dr. Raynauld Fortier, a curator at Ottawa's National Aviation Museum said he is
familiar with McVicar's writings and used them in his own research. Canada's history of
flight depends on buffs like McVicar who try enthusing others with their pashions.
McVicar's next project is to push for the creation of a museum at the airport with
memorabilia. He's on the Internet,searching for items of
McVicar's book sells for $35. The Dorval Library will have Airport
Dorval on its shelves soon.
Review of Don McVicar's latest book by Bob Merrick in a late edition of Canadian Owners
& Pilots Association monthly FLIGHT publication.
Dorval Airport ...it's been there THAT long?
These days, most people see airports as generally benign
obstacles standing between them and their airplanes. Much of the
time, most travellers would be hard pressed to tell you which
airport they were in. Airports have become large, impersonal--and
reasonably efficient--people handlers.
Fifty or more years ago, airports had a cachet of their own. None
was as fabled as storied Dorval. Dorval, the western end of the
Atlantic Ferry Organization set up to fly warplanes to the stormy
cauldron of World War Two. Dorval, the jumping off point for
thousands of aircraft, the bustling terminus of a remarkable
aircraft ferry service. Dorval, the temporary home of hundreds of
swashbuckling, larger than life pilots serving the Allied cause in
a long, difficult war.
It's an airport with a history, a history briefly recounted by
Don McVicar, one of the legendary pilots who helped make the
history at the airport which is the subject of his latest book,
McVicar's history is closely intertwined with Dorval's history.
Indeed, most of the book's early chapters cover his tribulations
while making the transition from a DOT air traffic controller to
the captain's seat on the many types of aircraft flown from Dorval
to Europe. Initially, the book's emphasis is on how to qualify to
fly from those runways, not how to build them, which direction to
point them, or how to arrange it so the airplane goes one way and
the baggage goes another. It covers much of the ground--and
airspace--described in one or another of his twelve earlier books,
presenting here in precis-fashion the problems that beset those
At war's end, Ferry Command disbanded. Dorval stood largely idle.
But not for long. Airlines began expanding their routes. Dorval had
inherited long runways and excellent instrument approach aids. It
was superbly positioned to serve the rapidly increasing civil air
traffic. Among this traffic were aircraft flown by an air carrier
headed by a veteran Dorval pilot; Don McVicar. As president of
World Wide Aviation, McVicar was destined to continue his
association with Dorval for another 20 years.
The middle section of the book describes the Dorval's rapid
growth during those years. As he did in the earlier section,
McVicar intersperses his account of his life and times at Dorval
with a series of factoids describing the new carriers attracted to
the Montreal airport, providing the reader with some understanding
of the fitful way in which the complicated web of international air
travel was initially woven.
It evokes memories of those exciting years when the old piston--and
ear--popping airliners such as the Stratocruiser, North Star,
Constellation (the best three-engine aircraft crossing the
Atlantic) and others regularly battled the elements to deposit
their fragile cargo on the other side of the Atlantic, or the
But the piston era was relatively short-lived. The first turbo-
props arrived and they were soon followed by jets. Air travel
burgeoned, and McVicar's reminiscences recall those busy jet
introductory days when airport neighbours became less impressed by
the romance of flight, and became more impressed by the flight of
romance when the early decibel demons thundered overhead shortly
after a 0200 take-off.
In 1965, McVicar's World Wide Airways flew into history. Despite
this, his fascination with the airport remained. His book
chronicles the subsequent growth of the airport and provides brief
vignettes of the many entrepreneurs who, over the years, supported
what we now, in this era of bafflespeak, call a dynamic engine of
commerce. In other words, Dorval, and the many small businesses
which support it, provided--and continue to provide--the jobs,
jobs, jobs which politicians are wont to stress come election time.
McVicar saw them all come and go, and he puts it all together in
a brief, enjoyable account that rekindles many memories. It is not
a thorough, fully-researched and documented history. It is a
chronological, anecdotal remembrance of many years of Canadian
aviation growth and change. It will be of great value to the
historian who settles down to write the full history of this
remarkable aerodrome. A lengthy bibliography will point researchers
along the right path, and the names McVicar sprinkles through the
book will provide further clues fo avid research assistants.
McVicar largely steers clear of the imponderable machinations
which led to the construction of Mirabel, but it is obvious that he
is no fan of the planning that saw international aviation diverted
to the new kid on the block, while Dorval handled domestic traffic.
The remaining chapters briefly bring us up to date on the current
activities of this remarkable airport, and the book ends with a
terse forecast for future growth and progress at one of Canada's
more storied airports.
It is a fond and readable look back at a legendary airport with
a rich past and a still promising future, told by a master
raconteur who was a big part of the history he describes.
Dorval Airport * Home