In a two-day ceremony May 27 and 28, 1928, the Winnipeg Flying Club officially opened an airfield in the Rural Municipality of St. James. Premier John Bracken addressed the crowd of 7,000 spectators at the new Stevenson Aerodrome, named in honour of the noted Manitoba aviator and pioneer bush pilot, Captain Fred J. Stevenson.
In those years, facilities on-site consisted of a tiny cabin and one hangar about 3.6 metres wide which could accommodate only folding wing aircraft. The flying club soon built a clubhouse, and other buildings began to appear as private fliers, commercial companies and the Royal Canadian Air Force moved in.
In 1930, Western Canada Airways became the first major carrier to use the field, flying mail freight and passengers to the east, west and north. On Feb. 2 of the following year, Northwest Airways, now Northwest Airlines, made the airport truly international, inaugurating a passenger and mail service between Winnipeg and Pembina, North Dakota.
The pace of the young airport was quickening, though by today’s standards those early facilities now seem primitive. The runways were sod, clay and loam. The passenger "terminal" was a lean-to on the side of a hangar. A 61-centimeter rotating beacon and two floodlights supplemented the flare pots that lined the runway for night landings. In winter, the snow was packed rather than cleared; the runway edges and ends were marked with evergreen trees frozen into snow banks.
In 1936, a major development took place that gave Winnipeg’s airport a dramatic impetus to growth. An act of Parliament created Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA). Winnipeg was chosen to be its operating headquarters for the new, national airline. It was close to the geographic centre of Canada, there were no mountains, the weather conditions were good for flying, and knowledgeable aviators of the day endorsed it as an ideal training area for aircrews.
By 1938, there were four civil aviation hangars, an RCAF hangar, three hard surface runways 960 meters long and 45 meters wide, and the field was almost 325 hectares in area. Boundary lights were installed, a radio range station, weather reporting and forecasting facilities began operating and the first air traffic controller was on duty atop one of the hangars.
Soon after TCA became fully operational, the Second World War brought another surge of activity. The airport mushroomed into a mini-city. The field was suddenly host to dozens of new buildings, hundreds of planes and thousands of workers. RCAF training schools, overhaul shops, TCA’s main operating base and executive offices, and the airplane manufacturing facilities of Midwest Aircraft and MacDonalds all appeared almost at once.
The Department of Transport responded to the tremendous increase in airport traffic by installing the field’s first full scale air traffic control system.
With the end of the war, TCA embarked on an exciting era of growth. The airline added two new aircraft to its fleet - the famous Douglas DC-3 and the Canadian-built four-engined North Star. The federal government, which had assumed operating responsibility for the airport in 1940, built a new north-south runway in 1948, extending it to 1860 meters in anticipation of larger airliners to come. That same year, instrument landing systems were installed on the approaches to the north-south and the northwest-southeast runways.
Until 1950 the passenger terminal facilities had only been a section inside the TCA hangar. On December 15, 1952, official ceremonies were held to open a new "modernized" facility - a wing added on to the TCA hangar to house airline offices, ticket counters, a baggage conveyor system, a waiting area and three boarding points. Additions and alterations continued on this passenger terminal up until 1960 when work began on the new terminal.
During the mid 1950s, Stevenson Field continued to grow at a remarkable pace. It was now Canada’s fourth largest civil airport and it handled more military traffic than any other civil airport in the nation. It housed the RCAF No. 2 Navigation School and the largest NATO air training school in Canada. Construction of Distant Early Warning (DEW) line sites began in arctic Canada. Winnipeg, being the supply base, saw a further increase in air activity. The airport expanded: another 800 hectares became operational and a third hard-surfaced runway was built.
Newer, larger planes began arriving in Winnipeg. In 1954, the Lockheed Super Constellation - a giant in its day - came into service, as did the Bristol Freighter. The in 1955, the world’s first turbine-propeller airliner, the Vickers Viscount, landed, bringing jet age responsibilities and technologies to the operating, engineering and maintenance base at the field.
In 1958, at the request of the Department of Transport, Stevenson Field was officially renamed Winnipeg International Airport.
Winnipeg Airports Authority Inc. (WAA) was established in 1992 to explore the feasibility of community ownership of Winnipeg International Airport. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 1993 that provided the framework for discussions and negotiations with Transport Canada.
On January 1, 1997, the transfer of Winnipeg International Airport from Transport Canada to the community-based WAA became official.
At a ceremony on December 10, 2006, the airport was officially renamed Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport in honour of Canadian aviation visionary and pioneer, James Armstrong Richardson.