Netook Air Gliding Centre celebrates 75 years

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Despite the chill, a very large crowd gathered at the Netook Gliding Centre five kilometres north of Olds on Aug. 28 to witness the unveiling of a cairn dedicated to those who “played a significant role in the acquisition and development of the Netook Gliding Centre.”

Netook as an airfield is 75 years old this year and the Air Cadet League of Canada celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.

Almost all the “pioneers” who helped create the facility were present to see their names forever emblazoned on the plaque: Ross Hamilton, Don Bennett, Neil Olsen, Brian Leatherdale and Eric Steffensen, represented by his wife Norma.

Initially, Netook was a farmer’s field. It has gone through many changes in the past 75 years, all to do with flying.

Beginning in 1941, the field became Royal Air Force (RAF) Station Borden — part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The field was also used part-time for army manoeuvres until the late 1940s.

The property then became the Town of Olds Airport for the next 30 years.

During that time, the Alberta Provincial Committee (APC) of the Air Cadet League of Canada also used the field as a gliding school, the first in Alberta. Herb Bowditch was its first instructor.

In 1982, the Olds 185 Air Cadet Squadron learned that the town was about to give up its lease. The APC immediately formed the Netook Gliding Centre Committee to look into either leasing or obtaining the property.

That committee was comprised of Don Bennett, Ross Hamilton and Brian Leatherdale. In June of 1984, they received verbal approval to lease. During all that time, air cadet gliding operations continued.

The property was then purchased by the Alberta Air Cadet League in 1994 and the field officially became the Netook Gliding Centre, owned and operated by the Alberta Provincial Committee of the Air Cadet League of Canada. The metamorphosis was complete.

The name Netook itself comes from a Blackfoot word, “Nee-tuck-kis”, meaning “lone pine.” Recently, Darlene LaRoche, an Air Cadet League national governor, and her husband Jim planted a pine next to the gliding centre flagpoles. Netook now has its “lone pine.”

Still today, the 1982 Netook Gliding Centre Committee has every reason to be proud of its accomplishments.

Don Bennett, the first director of Netook, was the driving force to acquire the lease from Transport Canada and facilitated the building of the hangar.

Brian Leatherdale was instrumental in purchasing the airstrip from the Town of Olds and securing funds to build the hangar.

Ross Hamilton was the assistant director of Netook from 1984 to 1988 and the director from 1988 until 2010. Today he still serves as the assistant director.

Neil Olsen, although not part of the original committee, was a vital resource person to it. He provided his knowledge, time and equipment as needed in the development and operation of the gliding centre. He was director of air resources from 1998 to 2003.

Eric Steffensen was the commanding officer of Netook from 1994 to 2000 and director of air resources from 2003 to 2011. Eric had a strong passion for Netook and volunteered countless hours in the developing and upkeep of the centre until his passing in 2015.

One of the original wartime hangars still stands at Netook and is used as a garage for the airfield vehicles.

A camp shelter and washrooms have been constructed; a classroom was moved in and in 2011 was named the Ross Hamilton Learning Centre in honour of his long and dedicated service to the air cadets.

Ross and his wife Arla are still ardent air cadet supporters and continue to give freely of their time.

Netook is a very active gliding centre/airfield. In 2015 there were almost 250 takeoffs and landings in the short air cadet training window – late April to end of June and September to late October, depending upon weather.

Over the intervening years, thousands of Alberta air cadets have experienced their first “thrill of flight” glider ride and hundreds of those have gone on to become licensed Transport Canada Glider and Powered aircraft pilots.

A point of interest – approximately 60 per cent of commercial pilots in Canada right now are former air cadets.

– Stan Monkman is director of public relations for the Alberta Provincial Committee of the Air Cadet League of Canada.

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