Picton’s historic airport reveals its heart
By Catherine Stutt
Photos by Daniel Vaughan and Catherine Stutt
In the stillness of an oppressively humid July day, the only sounds at Loch Sloy are the distant drone of small aircraft and the crunch of dry brown grass underfoot.
Walking past the perfectly aligned rows of H-huts, their original cedar shakes faded by blistering heat and relentless winters of the past 70 years, there is another sound – perhaps imagined, perhaps embedded and released to only receptive visitors – of footsteps in perfect cadence, as faded and yet as real as the weathered buildings.
Approaching one of the six hangars on the edge of the still-active airfield, it is easy to understand this developing industrial park was once a vital contributor to an international assembly of military training facilities.
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was a massive military training program jointly created by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Canada was considered an ideal choice for the centre of operations due to its weather, open spaces, ample resources of fuel, and production facilities. It was removed from imminent attack from the Luftwaffe and Japanese fighter aircraft yet relatively close to both the European and Pacific theatres of war.
Two BCATP locations grew in Prince Edward County – Mountain View, which is still a very active Canadian Forces Detachment under the command of 8 Wing/CFB Trenton, and Picton, which was considered a perfect location for a bombing and gunnery school. Built in the summer of 1940, both airfields shared the classic BCATP design with three 2,500-foot runways arranged in a triangle.
By November 1940, Picton’s aerodrome was functional, first with small arms training and then as the RAF’s No. 31 Bombing and Gunnery School.
When the war ended, the Canadian Army maintained a training facility at the airfield, renaming it Camp Picton in 1960, and then Canadian Forces Base Picton in 1966, and finally closing and selling it in 1969 during the consolidation and downsizing of the Canadian military.
Its story is legendary, with rumours about famous spies training there during the Cold War, and even today it is somewhat mythical, thought to be owned by Hollywood studios, or a reclusive financier, considered impenetrable, and either about to be demolished or part of a huge restoration project. From the road, little action is visible and signs warn trespassers of the consequences of their actions. Its entrance is forbidding, and few people seem to pass through the gates.
The truth is, Picton Airport, as it is known now, is privately owned and privately funded by the Loch Sloy Holding company, and operated by a sixth-generation County family. The gatekeeper, or more accurately official greeter, is usually Jacqui Burley, whose smile lights up an entire room and whose laughter is infectious. She and her brother Steven Everall manage the property with Jacqui’s husband Todd, and their uncle Al Everall, aided by an ever-increasing number of summer interns.
Jacqui started at the site in 1999 when the Scott family purchased the property and Steven joined her in 2005. Both also run their family farms. Steven’s is nearby and Todd and Jacqui farm in Cressy, on Todd’s family’s United Empire Loyalist Farm, where their children are the seventh generation of the Burley’s to live on the property.
Their roots in the area and their genuine passion for the property’s history and potential put a serious dent in the urban myths. “This is such a vibrant place,” insisted Jacqui, stopping to greet one of the business owners who call the airport home. “Every day about 130 people work here, a lot of local businesses operate from here, and we’re very proud to provide affordable space for artisans and entrepreneurs. In fact, we have a waiting list of people looking for studio, workshop, or storage space.”
History is alive at every turn, and the story of the transition is infused with respect. “This was a nostalgic purchase for the owners,” shared Jacqui. “The father was with the Royal Air Force and trained with the BCATP in Manitoba. Much later, he decided to spend his summers in Prince Edward County, fell in love with the community, and wanted to give something back while preserving a piece of Canada’s history with which he had a strong connection.”
The acquisition included an intriguing collection of military buildings – 44 in all and as Steven noted, all built in one year. There are 10 H-huts (so named because of the two parallel wings attached by a communal area), sized from 5,000 to 9,000 square feet; some were used as barracks, some for munitions storage. There are six 36,000-square foot hangars, a 21,000 drill hall, a theatre/lecture/dance hall, officers’ quarters, sergeants mess (the office’s mess burned in 1969), two parachute towers, three Quonset huts, workshops, a dentist office, administration building, and fire chief’s residence. The hospital and nurses’ residence is across the road, and Jacqui has a file on every single building, including whatever history she could find and upgrades since she became part of this great historical site.
“It important to celebrate and respect what this property represents,” insisted Jacqui. Without aviation training during the Second World War, we have no idea how this area would have developed or what would be sitting on this property. It isn’t just the international aspect – so much of our local history is connected to this site.”
A priority on the wish list is to reroof the officers’ quarters to create a formal entrance and establish a unique museum. “We want youth to be able to recognize the importance of aviation to this area. We want something tangible and touchable and interactive, something we can share with the public.”
The Central Region Gliding School keeps aviation alive at the airfield, and each summer more than 80 Air Cadets receive glider training at the two former BCATP aerodromes on the County. “It wouldn’t be summer without the cadets,” smiled Jacqui.
There is also an active flying club at Picton Airport, and the family is working closely to capitalize on the changing demographics of Prince Edward County. “We want to increase interest in private and commercial aviation, and let people know our airfield is only a short flight from Buttonville and Toronto Island.
There is significant public interest and as military records become available, they build interest and lore. “We understand the Avro Arrow was stored here during part of its testing, and we’re awaiting paperwork to confirm this was once Camp X where spies were trained during the Cold War. We found a 1967 notation on a chalkboard mentioning chemical and biological warfare seminars,” shared Jacqui, who appreciates anecdotal information from those with a connection to the site.
Most days are spent preserving and improving the buildings and attending to the day to day operations of the industrial park. The property runs strictly on cash flow, and Steven is known for making every square inch count, particularly for winter storage in the hangars.
Of the 44 buildings standing when Loch Sloy purchased the property, 43 are still standing, and the single building lost is still valuable. Steven and his crew harvested windows and cedar shakes and will continue to salvage usable architectural and structural elements to use on other restorations. “We thought we would have had to tear down a lot more, but these were built to last,” noted Steven.
Much though the family would love to perfectly restore each and every building to its original condition, their focus now is to preserve as much as possible, and hopefully fund restorations in the future.
This is a daunting task. Last year Steven and his team installed about 500 sheets of roofing steel; this summer they installed 1,100 – about 200 sheets per building. Almost all of the H-huts are reroofed with red steel, and many are undergoing interior restoration. Every H-hut consumes 60 to 70 gallons of paint to recoat the exterior shakes, which is negligible compared to the 260 gallons applied to each of the six hangars.
This is far from a static museum-in-waiting.
Tenants include an aggregate company supplying high grade iron ore used to manufacture concrete for the nuclear industry (the same company offers landscape supplies and natural stone). There are two businesses specializing in woodworking – one using reclaimed lumber and the other making unique leisure chairs. A pallet company needed to expand and was able to remain in Prince Edward County by relocating to Loch Sloy. There are contractors, boat builders, marine mechanics, artists, craftsmen, and even a commercial fish depot.
“We’re giving people a chance to add to the local economy, to establish new businesses and expand existing ones,” explained Jacqui. “We are perfect for new entrepreneurs and light industry. Sometimes our tenants need temporary space and they have a chance to experience the great County lifestyle and consider making this their home.”
Each year organizations return to the airfield for special events. The Saint Lawrence Auto Club hosts slalom races here, and there are tractor pulls, and arm-drop drag races. “We get teenagers to people in their 70s bringing new cars and vintage vehicles; it’s a popular event.”
Canada’s famous speedboat –Miss Supertest – was there last summer, and last September the Yellow Wings – vintage military aircraft – landed. “We had 1,500 people waiting for them to land,” said Jacqui. “Word gets out. It was amazing to see vintage aircraft surrounded by vintage cars in front of the hangars once used to protect them.”
Retaining the historic character of the site is paramount, but building momentum for business is equally necessary. Jacqui and Steven work closely with County officials to share the potential, and change is in the wind. There are plans to rebrand the Picton Airport industrial park, to host an open house to share the history, thoughts of regular tours, and the museum.
The tenants at Picton Airport are like family, and embrace the historical significance of their surroundings. “To have space like this, in a place like this is incredible,” said Gary XXXX, owner of the Prince Edward Chair Company. “Every day I come to work and think about all of the kids who trained here, and remember far too many of them didn’t come home. We have to honour what this place means, and every day we are reminded because the buildings are still here.”
As the gliding school student soar overhead, and entrepreneurs and artists and mechanics and craftsman ply their trade in this historic setting, the cadence of long ago marches continues. It is not the sound of history fading into the distance. It is the symphony of success guaranteed by those who walked these grounds when freedom was facing its greatest threat.