The town of Vanscoy is a village of 339 residents in the rural municipality of Vanscoy No. 345. Is located on Highway 7 near Highway 762 in central Saskatchewan, 29 km southwest of Saskatoon, the largest city in the province.
Brief history of the airfield
The balloon launch facility installed there since middle 80's used a small airfield located 4 km NW of Vanscoy, and was the last active base that existed in Canada devoted to the launch of stratospheric balloons until the inauguration in 2013 of the Timmins Stratospheric Balloon base.
The history of the airfield dates back to 1940, when the Federal Government took over the Saskatoon Municipal Airport for use as an RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) training facility. On the 16th of September, 1940, No. 4 Service Flying Training School officially opened and as part of the plan, two small airfields -one located at Osler and the other near Vanscoy- were integrated to the initiative to serve as relief landing fields.
After a quarter century of activity, by 1964, the training facility was closed and the Saskatoon airport returned to its original role as a civilian airport. Meanwhile the small airfield at Osler was also inactivated and later ploughed under for farming, with no actual traces of their existence.
However, the Vanscoy airstrip remained almost untouched until middle 80's decade.
The birth of a balloon launch facility
In that times, there was a permanent installation for balloon launches operated by a firm called Space Facility Research which was located at Gimli, Manitoba. That base was active until 1986 when funding for balloons and rockets was whitdrawn and reallocated to start a Canadian national space program. When Gimli base closed, Environment Canada decided to kept the balloon launch equipment and move it to Vanscoy to re-start the activity there at the local airfield.
Thus, merely a year after in 1987, the first balloon launches were performed.
Later, the operation of the launch facility was handed over to Scientific Instrument Limited (SIL) a Saskatoon company whose aim is to develope solutions in the area of sensors for military and scientific applications.
The Vanscoy facility included two hangars for the preparation of payloads to be flown and a truck specially adapted to be used as a vehicle launcher with a lifting capacity of up to 800 kgs, the later inherited from the Gimli base. This capability allowed to launch balloons up to 360,000 cubic meters of volume.
The base counted with all the necessary hardware and a complete telemetry system. As the electronics was a key field of competence for SIL, the company had developed a microprocessor-based module called IPC (Consolidated Instrumentation Package) that allows to control all aspects of the flight of a balloon. In regards of the land vehicles for tracking and recovery the experiments flown, these were contracted to a third party.
SIL has launched a total of 190 balloons, not only from Vanscoy but also from other sites in Canada as Alert, Resolute Bay and North Bay. The main users of their services were the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the University of Wyoming among others.
In september 2002, the site gained some media attention while the French parachutist Michel Fournier attempted to perform a stratospheric jump to beat the records held by Joe Kittinger since 1960. That first attempt was performed from the balloon facility at Vanscoy, to no avail: during inflation one of the helium injection hoses teared, rendering the balloon unusable. In following days weather was not cooperative and the launch window closed before another favourable launch opportunity.
However, the most important balloon activity on which the Vanscoy facility was part of, took place under the auspices of an initiative called MANTRA (Middle Atmosphere Nitrogen TRend Assesment). The scientific effort, which was the most important atmospheric research program carried out in Canada, performed four large balloon that transported several payloads in the same gondola. These series of flights carried out between 1998 and 2004, would be the last ones to be performed from Vanscoy.
At some time in late 2000's there were under consideration some projects aimed to restart the activity in the base, including the cooperation of the facility along with the French Space Agency CNES. However, the initiative never was materialized, probably due to the fact that CNES finally decided to make an agreement with their colleagues of the Canadian Space Agency to built a new base at Timmins, Ontario.
Althought nowadays the site looks abandoned and there is no traces of the paved runways, it still appears to be used as Vanscoy's airfield.
Table of balloons launched from Vanscoy