Story and Photos by Steve Finkelman, AAM Communications Coordinator, additional photography by Lech Lebiedowski
Bernie Sheppard spent 48 years in the Canadian Air Force as a logistician where his motto was ‘You fly them, we supply them.’
That expertise, and love of Blatchford Field and Hangar 14, has made him a major contributor in helping build the Alberta Aviation Museum into what it is today. But he says through most of his career, it was really just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
Sheppard’s love of aviation rubbed off from his father, an RCAF medical assistant during the Second World War, later an Air Force safety inspector.
In 1952 his family was transferred to Edmonton where he lived steps away from Blatchford Field.
“The DEW line was being built, the Cold War was starting. You had a lot of American planes. We had AVRO Yorks, (a variant of the Lancaster) we had a dozen of them here. They’d be loading right here in front of our hangar and I’d be down here watching.”
One Saturday morning was particularly memorable. An American C-46 crash landed after taking off southbound from the airport.
“There is this C-46 sitting on 111 Avenue. Big shock to me. But the big shock was to the lady standing in front of her lawn just south of 111th Avenue, hair in curlers, with her hands on her hips chewing out the American crew.”
As a teenager Sheppard could not resist the urge to get more involved. He joined 418 (City of Edmonton) Squadron as a young reservist. The unit was based in Blatchford Field’s Hangar 14, now home to the Alberta Aviation Museum.
Two years later, he joined the regular forces, but not as a pilot.
“Every body wants to become a pilot. But at the time they really didn’t need young recruits yet. The idea of staying in uniform long term as a logistician didn’t really hurt my feelings at all.”
Over the next 20 years, Sheppard served at two Quebec air bases, then a stint in Europe, before returning home to Alberta to serve at a series of radar stations including Penhold, Alberta. In 1980 he transferred to Edmonton to serve at the Namao airbase.
Back to Edmonton.
By then Blatchford had changed too. The Americans had vacated the east side of the field and that area had become the NAIT campus. The sound of jet engines filled the sky around Edmonton’s inner-city airport with Pacific Western Airlines 737s shuttling back and forth to Calgary almost hourly. Many of those pilots trained with 418 Squadron.
Almost as soon as Sheppard returned to Edmonton, he was loaned to the federal government’s Indian and Northern Affairs Branch for what turned out to be a 10-year secondment. He also rejoined 418 Squadron, which was flying Twin Otters out of Namao.
When the federal government was finished with him, he returned to Namao, where his involvement with Hangar 14 was renewed. The city had turned the historic hangar over to a coalition of aviation groups including the Alberta Aviation Museum. Sheppard was assigned to work with two of them, the Civilian Aircraft Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) and the Air Cadets.
At the same time Air Force operations at Namao were winding down, with the base being handed over to the Canadian Army.
“The regimental Sergeant Major comes to me and said, ‘I want you to get this airforce sh#t off the base.’ We had a lot of aircraft displayed from past history out in front of headquarters. I happened to be at the hangar the same time Mayor Bill Smith was there. And I said ‘sir, we need to bring a whole bunch of airplanes down to this hangar.’ With his help we assembled a convoy of equipment to load the aircraft onto flatbeds and bring them to Blatchford.”
The fledgling Alberta Aviation Museum, whose collection until then consisted of a handful of old bushplanes, now added two CF-101 Voodos, a CF100 Canuck, a CT-133 T-bird, an F-86 Sabre, and a Bomarc missle. The hangar also acquired loads of desks, chairs, shelving and other office supplies as the Namao airbase was decommissioned. Once again, Bernie Sheppard was at the right place at the right time.
In 2005, on his 65th birthday Sheppard retired from the military, but he stayed closely connected to the hangar.
“A box of business cards was given to me,” he remembers. “Director, Edmonton Aviation Heritage Society. I didn’t even get elected.”
As a ‘supply guy’ he was asked by the President of 418 Squadron Association, Jim Gillespie, to find parts for a derelict B-25 the group wanted to restore for the museum. He made three trips to the Southern California desert to an aircraft ‘boneyard.’
“I saw rows and rows of wings all with Canadian markings on them. ‘Fantastic I thought.’ “
“But the owner shook his head. ‘You guys can only afford the $5,000 wings. Those are the $50,000 wings.’ The cheaper wings had bullet holes, they had been in the Florida Everglades and had really suffered.”
“Sure enough the technicians here looked at them and said, ‘you must be kidding!’ They became ‘Bernie’s wings’ because whenever I would walk into the hangar these guys would be patching bullet holes and replacing corrosion. But it was a very satisfying time for a ‘supply guy.’
Sheppard continues to be a regular volunteer at the museum, often handling simple but important tasks like making sure all the cardboard is properly recycled. Like many long-time volunteers he just loves to be around the aircraft and the historic building.
“Whenever I look at the plane I think my gosh at one time we used to have a dozen of these B-25s at this hangar at least we’ve got one. And what they’ve done with it is just fantastic. Once again it was the right place a the right time.”