A salute to Claude Stevenson and the Harbour Grace airstrip

Longtime caretaker of airstrip recognized by Canadian Owners and Pilots Association

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on April 21, 2014

A well-known personality in the province's aviation community who is credited for helping revive and maintain the historic Harbour Grace Airstrip has been honoured with a presitigous award from an association that represents general aviation in this country.

Family members of the late Claude Stevenson were on hand April 12 to accept The President's Award from the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), which staged a board meeting in this province for the first time in its 61-year history.

Stevenson was the airstrip caretaker and a long-time member of COPA. He passed away March 27, 2013 at the age of 87.

The prestigious President’s Award recognizes Stevenson for his lifetime commitment to aviation in the province. The award was accepted by two family members, great niece Natasha Power and great nephew Richard Moores.

Stevenson was nominated by Ray Hawco, a fellow pilot and air enthusiast. Hawco used to land at the airstrip in the 60s and 70s, and got to know Stevenson.

"This was the only airstrip in North American that is unchanged since it was built in the early 20s. The fact that Claude undertook to bring it back to some kind of life in the 60s speaks to his passion and love of flying," said Hawco.

Stevenson earned his pilot's licence in the mid-60s and based his 1946 Ercoupe single engine airplane at the field. He quickly took an interest in the airstrip, and poured his efforts into maintaining and improving the field.

"It was little more than a muddy, rocky path that few cared for," said Bryan Hood, who, along with Theo Weber, have succeeded Stevenson as the field's caretaker. Both have hangers at the site, which is located betwen Lady Lake and Veterans Memorial Highway.

"About all it was used for was growing hay by local farmers. Roads crossed the field and rocks and brush made it unsuitable for use," added Hood.

Stevenson, with help from friends and members of the Harbour Grace Historical Society, gradually got the field back in order. The rocks were raked off, brush was trimmed back and fertilizer and grass seed were added to the bare spots on the field. New grass covered the field and a perimeter fence was built. The roads were re-routed and by the mid-70s the field was in better shape than ever, Hood explained.

The official re-opening of the airstrip took place and the Transport Canada listing went from abandoned to active, which is quite rare.

"From this point on, Claude, for the most part singlehandedly, mowed and maintained the field, flying regularly from there for 40 years. In the process of preserving this historic site, in its original state, he also introduced many people to general aviation in his plane," said Hood.

"He flew until 2006, into his 80s, and even after retiring from flying continued to maintain the field, visiting it almost every day."

A little history

The airstrip was built at the request of, and with the help of Stinson Aircraft Ltd. of Detroit so one of its aircraft, “The Pride of Detroit," could use it as the North American hopping off point of Schlee and Brock’s round-the-world flight attempt.

Built in 1927, it is Newfoundland’s oldest airport and is approximately 2,200 feet long and 200 feet wide.

From the beginning, with its strategic location, the field would host many trans-Atlantic flight attempts, including Wiley Post and Charles Kingsford Smith.

The most famous, however, occurred in 1932 when Amelia Earhart started out on the first successful solo trans-Atlantic flight by a woman.

Erroll Boyd, the first Canadian to fly the Atlantic, also used Harbour Grace as his hopping off point, Hood explained.

Hood described Stevenson as a "window to the past on some of these events in aviation’s golden age."

Stevenson was regarded as a quiet man, but when questioned about the history of the field, he would tell of meeting Earhart in 1932, and he distinctly remembered the aircraft “Lady Peace” and famed First World War aviator Eddie Rickenbacker arriving at the field in 1936 flying a DC-2 airliner.

These events, and the fact that he lived in Harbour Grace, likely prompted him to learn how to fly in Ontario in the mid-60s, Hood noted. He also purchased his Ercoupe there and after a memorable journey, which included an engine failure over Nova Scotia, flew it home to Harbour Grace.

Today, the airstrip is a National Historic Site, and is one of the few sites anywhere from aviation’s golden age that remains virtually unchanged, since those daring pioneers set out from it to challenge the unforgiving North Atlantic.

"This is in no small part due to the efforts and commitment of Claude Stevenson," Hood wrote in a message to The Compass.

"All of Newfoundland’s aviation community will miss Claude and all of us thank him for preserving the site for our use. I am also sure that many, like myself, who were first introduced to flying by Claude, wish to thank him for keeping aviation alive at the site."

COPA represents more than 18,000 private pilots and owners across the country.