First family of flight

Roger Hadfield first pilot to land

at airport named for famous son

It’s common knowledge that Sarnia’s airport is named for astronaut Chris Hadfield, the city’s more famous native son.

But few know it was actually his father, Roger Hadfield, who first landed a plane at the airport. Or that the First Family of Canadian Flight, as the Hadfields are known, trace their illustrious careers in aviation to the airstrip.

The year was 1958 and the senior Hadfield was flying with a friend to Pelee Island one April day.  But his passenger grew airsick in turbulence over the Chemical Valley, so Hadfield turned his Aeronca Champ around and aimed for a freshly-bulldozed runway he’d noticed northeast of Sarnia.

The landing strip was marked with X’s denoting it unsafe, a precaution Hadfield cheerfully ignored.

“We flew back to the newly-cut runway and did the first ever landing on it,” he says. “As we taxied into the new hangar a very distraught airport owner-manager, Bill Moon, came running out waving his arms.”

Thus began a relationship with the airport that continues to this day.

Moon invited the drop-ins for coffee at the old Holiday Inn on the Golden Mile, and on the way back offered Hadfield a job as Sarnia’s first full-time flying instructor.

“I was happy to accept,” he says. “I started my first flying job at Sarnia on May 5, 1958.”

Son Chris Hadfield gained planet-wide rock star status commanding the International Space Station last year, but when it comes to flying his dad is no slouch.

Hadfield ended his professional career with 25,000 hours as a Captain with Air Canada, and today lives with wife Eleanor in Milton, Ont.  He says the airport’s early days, its fledgling Sarnia Airlines and the flight school that helped fund operations were special.

The runway was grass and mostly underwater that first wet spring, but the school opened with more than 85 students – many drawn from the Polymer Recreation Club – and would go on to graduate hundreds of licensed pilots.

Money was always tight, Hadfield says.

Sarnia Airline’s lone aircraft was a nine-passenger De Havilland Dove flying Sarnia-Toronto return. Once, when it lost an engine, it proved hard getting a replacement, so the plane was parked on the ramp as though ready to fly but with the missing engine hidden from view.

“As they arrived (the passengers) were told that due to deteriorating weather in the Toronto area they would have to be bussed. The bus arrived promptly and this charade continued for about a week,” Hadfield recalls.

“Bill (Moon) realized he was making more money with the bus than the aircraft, and carried on with it until some repeat passengers voiced serious doubts.”

But the growing airport succeeded, in part because companies like Imperial Oil, Dow Chemical and Mueller Brass had heavy travel needs.

In 1962 Richard and Eleanor Hadfield bought a cottage on Stag Island, which they still own and return to each summer. They had five children, including two girls, Anna Jean and Patricia. They gave their kids many things, including the capacity for hard work and a love of music.

The boys all became pilots.

Eldest son David’s first aviation job was cleaning and hauling baggage for Air Ontario. He rode his bike to work each day, from Stag Island to the airport and back. David Hadfield is now a senior Air Canada Captain, flying Boeing 777 aircraft on routes to Asia.

Phillip, the youngest son, earned his wings in Sarnia and today is an Air Canada Captain, flying extended range 767s to South America, Europe and the Middle East.

David’s son, Austin, is also a professional pilot and Air Canada First Officer, beginning a third generation of Hadfield aviators.

And Chris, of course, became a military test pilot-turned-astronaut whose accomplishments are legion and legendary. Sarnia renamed its airstrip Sarnia Chris Hadfield Airport in 1997, following the first of his three missions in space.

“We were all there so they probably should have just called it Hadfield Airport,” their dad says with a laugh.  “Sarnia gave the family its start in flying.”

– George Mathewson