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Capitalizing on Small Ideas

The Abbotsford International Air Show celebrates its 50th birthday in August of this year.


August 10, 2012
By Paul Dixon

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The Abbotsford International Air Show celebrates its 50th birthday in August of this year. To put that in perspective, 50 years ago, the Royal Canadian Navy was still a year away from receiving its first Sea King helicopter. At that time, the airport at Abbotsford was little more than a relic of the Second World War, when it was one of the scores of airfields built across Canada under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, operating as No. 24 Elementary Flying Training School.

Shut down after the war, by the mid-50s it was being used as a drag strip. In 1960, the tower reopened and YXX and became the official alternate to YVR. About this time, the fledgling Abbotsford Flying Club decided that an air show would be a great way to have some fun and educate the public, so with a $700 grant from the local Rotary club, the die was cast. Some 10,000 people turned out for that first, modest two-day show. In 1967, the show expanded to its current three-day format to mark Canada’s Centennial celebrations. Crowds topped 100,000 for both the Saturday and Sunday shows that year. Just three years later, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau designated it as Canada’s national airshow.

There was an op-ed article that ran in many Canadian newspapers this past April, wherein the CEO of a non-partisan, not-for-profit research organization (its words) speaks of this country’s “consistently poor performance at turning ideas into products, services and processes” as an indication that something is “missing.” I look at something such as the Abbotsford International Air Show as proof positive that there is very much a vehicle for turning ideas into successful reality and it is very much alive today.

Success and the means by which we measure and define it today are much of the problem. I may still be naive, but even as a child of the ’60s, I understood that you got out of life what you put into it; nothing came easy because it wasn’t supposed to be easy. If you built a superior product or offered a higher level of service, then, all other things being equal, you would be successful.

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Today, it seems, it’s all about the art of the deal – not actually making something or doing something, but dancing around it. Today, we create wealth; if one believes what one sees and reads. It’s all about “wealth,” whatever that may be. The concept is pitched with the same enthusiasm as an old-fashioned carnival barker – step right up and give it a try! Everyone’s a winner. On and on it goes, more like spinning a mountain of cotton candy from a cup full of sugar. Might look pretty, but there’s really very little substance to it and let’s not talk about the hideous colours.

So, 50 years ago a few flying enthusiasts had a “what if” moment and it grew from there. In 1962, Abbotsford wasn’t even a wide spot in the highway, because the Trans-Canada Highway into Vancouver wasn’t to be completed for another two years. Today, Abbotsford has a population of 150,000 and is one of the fastest-growing communities in the country. Along the way, the city became the owner of the airport in the 1990s and it has been a very good thing. Like Cinderella, the castoff-training field has bloomed. The runways have been extended and improved, the new terminal serves daily Westjet flights as well as a number of smaller, regional carriers.

Today, YXX is an economic generator for the City of Abbotsford and the entire Fraser Valley. It’s home to major international players Conair and Cascade Aerospace and an expanding stable of aerospace and support service companies. Several flight training schools and rotary operators, including Sequoia Helicopters, Campbell Helicopters and Chinook Helicopters, call it home.

All of this is happening in 2012 because a group of people had a vision and the gumption to see it through. The Abbotsford International Air Show has grown through the hard work of an exceptional group of people, virtually all of whom are volunteers. It didn’t start as a get rich quick scheme. There have been some lean years, but because of the spirit of people, the show goes on year after year.

This is not the only airshow in Canada and I’d like to think that the spirit we see at Abbotsford is the same bright light that puts the wind under the wings of every other air show, large or small, across this country. It’s the same entrepreneurial spirit that drives most helicopter operators nationwide as well – the ability to “get ’er done” no matter what.

Take the opportunity to attend an air show this summer. It’s your chance to relive a small slice of your past and the people who make it happen would really appreciate it.


Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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