Construction of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Station Cold Lake began in 1952. The area was selected by the RCAF due to several beneficial geographical features: adequate drainage, flat terrain, and nearby gravel deposits. Cold Lake was the first flying station to be built for the RCAF following the Second World War.
In 1953, the Federal Government signed an agreement with the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan for the use of a tract of land 180 km by 65 km to use as an air weapons range. The RCAF Station Cold Lake officially opened in the spring of 1954 under the temporary command of Wing Commander John Watts.
The Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR) has evolved to the point where it is considered to be one of the finest facilities of its kind in the world. The CLAWR covers an area of 1.17 million hectares straddling the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. Several factors unique to the CLAWR make it an ideal choice for combined air operations training. The heavily forested terrain with numerous lakes resembles European topography and differs from the desert conditions in southwestern Nevada.
Construction of the Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) Unit, later known as 42 Radar Squadron, commenced in June 1954. In September and October of 1954, the construction of 355 Permanent Married Quarters (PMQs) was completed. The Base’s rapid growth required more housing, so the construction of 200 more houses and a trailer park that could house 40 families was undertaken.
The first day of flight training at the Station was September 1, 1954 at the Ground Instruction School Synthetic Trainer Building. By November 1954, 40 major buildings were finished, including a huge cantilever hangar, four 160 foot structural steel hangars, chapels, officer and non-commissioned member quarters and messes, in addition to many other large buildings required for the operation of a modern air base. One of these essential buildings included the Base hospital which, unique to most RCAF hospitals, provided services to all the dependants of Air Force personnel and to civilians in the surrounding area. During this time the station at Cold Lake was becoming a self-reliant community with a number of services and activities including swimming, softball, winter sports, a library, and a theatre.
The Air Armament Evaluation Detachment was the first flying unit on the base when it began operations in April 1954. Around the same time, Cold Lake received 3 All Weather (Fighter) Operational Training Unit (3 AW (F) OTU). In January 1956, the Air Defence Command Weapons Practice Unit (WPU) and the Control Proficiency Unit (CPU) formed the first training units at the base. Their mandate was to train ground controllers and CF-100 aircrew.
The rapid development of the base witnessed the acquisition and operation of many different aircraft making the Station Flight Unit one of the largest and most active flying units in Canada’s post-war Air Force. Aircraft such as the C-45 Expeditor, DeHavilland “Otters” and the famous C-47 “Dakotas” provided a vital communication and transportation link with Edmonton over the years. Base Flight also held a number of helicopters, mainly to provide MEDEVAC services among other duties.
In the spring of 1961, with the planned replacement of the CF-100 with the CF-101 Voodoo, the WPU and the CPU were disbanded. In August 1961, 3 AW (F) OTU moved to Bagotville to make room in Cold Lake for No. 6 Strike/Reconnaissance OTU. The “new” unit’s responsibilities included training the aircrew for the RCAF CF-104 squadrons stationed in Europe. 10 Field Technical Training Unit (10 FTTU) was created at the same time to train the ground-crew on the new aircraft.
From 1964 until 1968, the RCAF, as well as the Army and Navy, underwent a process known as unification. At this point, RCAF Station Cold Lake acquired the name Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Cold Lake.
In 1971, Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment (AETE) was established in Cold Lake, by amalgamating the various evaluation establishments around the country. Its primary role is to conduct important flight testing and evaluations for the CAF. As a lodger unit of 4 Wing Cold Lake AETE reports directly to its chain of command, which is the Assistant Deputy Minister (Infrastructure and Environment) in Ottawa. AETE is in the process of making engineering test and evaluation (ET&E) services more effective, efficient, and sustainable: AETE is relocating to Ottawa, transforming its organizational structure and collaborating with the National Research Council Flight Research Laboratory (NRC FLR) and Transport Canada Aircraft Services Directorate (TC ASD) at Ottawa Macdonald–Cartier International Airport.
The 1980’s marked the introduction of Canada’s latest fighter aircraft, the CF-18 Hornet. Preparations began in 1981 on the construction of many new facilities at the Base to assist in the arrival of the new fighters. A new simulator, supply warehouse, weapons systems trainer, engine bay, avionics lab, range improvements and new facilities for 10 FTTU were all constructed.
On June 4, 1983, the CF-104 was heard for the last time over Cold Lake and the CF-18 was ushered in as the newest fighter aircraft at the base. Major renovations were also completed in 1985 to the CANEX mall.
The ending of the Cold War and the beginning of turmoil in the Persian Gulf started off the 1990’s. This period saw the closing of many European bases, and the consolidation of the RCAF’s fighter forces within Canada. Following the closure of the base in Baden-Soellingen, Germany in June of 1993, CFB Cold Lake became the home of 4 Wing. In 1995, 4 Wing saw the end of an era as 419 Squadron was stood down, and the last of the CF-5s were retired from active service.
To address the needs of its youth, also in 1990, the base opened a brand new Daycare. A rejuvenation of 4 Wing personnel support facilities continued with the opening of the Medley Community Centre in 1996, which is the current home of the Military Family Resources Centre Society (MFRCS). The new wing theatre opened in 1999 and the Wing Hospital (22 Canadian Forces Health Services Centre) moved into the renovated CANEX complex. In October 1999, the aging arena and recreation centres were replaced with the Colonel J.J. Parr Sports Centre. The new facility offered a full size swimming pool and waterslide, two hockey rinks, indoor racquetball courts and exercise and meeting facilities. Later, in 2007, the Palm Springs Golf Club facility was replaced with a new recreation centre renamed the Cold Lake Golf & Winter Club. It included a six sheet curling rink and meeting facilities.
During the conflict in the Balkans, 4 Wing squadrons and units were called to support Operations ECHO and ALLIED FORCE, based in Aviano, Italy from 1998 to 2000. As part of a revamp of the Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) integrated pilot training system in July 2000, the ‘Moose’ Fulton training facility was opened to accommodate the newly reformed 419 ‘Moose’ Squadron, equipped with the new CT-155 Hawk trainer; training both Canadian and its NATO partners’ aircrew in the Fighter Lead-In Training (FLIT) phase.
After 9/11, NORAD air sovereignty patrol operations increased, and the CAF took on a significant combat role in Afghanistan; 4 Wing was called upon to provide personnel and logistical support throughout the 12 year campaign. This period also saw the establishment of the Wing’s Youth Centre in 2003. In 2006, 4 Wing Headquarters was moved to the former Colonel Ned Henderson Pilot Training Centre, and the second generation simulator complex facility was established. Also in 2006, 416 and 441 squadrons were disbanded, and reformed as 409 “Nighthawks” Tactical Fighter Squadron (Tac F Sqn).
During operations over Libya in 2011, 4 Wing supported Operation MOBILE. From April to October 2011, CF-18s and aircrew from both 3 Wing Bagotville and 4 Wing Cold Lake flew almost 1000 sorties in both patrol and combat missions from Trapani Airbase, Sicily in Italy. Also in 2011, the Canadian Air Force was officially re-designated as the Royal Canadian Air Force, coming full circle after nearly 50 years following unification.
In October 2014, the Government of Canada called upon 4 Wing Cold Lake to support Operation IMPACT based out of Kuwait. The first elements were comprised primarily of 409 (Tac F Sqn) and left Cold Lake on a six month deployment with six CF-18 Hornets. On June 30, 2015, 409 Tac F Sqn was split to allow for the re-establishment of 401 Tac F Sqn and a further evolution in the RCAF’s fighter force. Shortly after 401 Tac F Sqn’s reactivation, they deployed as part of the third rotation to support Operation IMPACT.
In March 2020 a new 4 Wing Health Centre was opened on the same location as the original 4 Wing hospital. The facility offers a variety of medical services including dental, physiotherapy, pharmacy, care delivery, mental health, and preventative medicine.
In 2017 and 2019, 4 Wing has been committed to enhanced Air Policing operation in Romania. Air Task Force (ATF) Romania is part of Operation Reassurance, the CAF response in support of NATO’s request for enhanced assurance measures to promote security and stability in Central and Eastern Europe.
Now 4 Wing Cold Lake’s mission is to contribute to the RCAF’s delivery of Air Power in Formation to support Canada’s security needs at home and abroad. 4 Wing is currently home to 401 Tactical Fighter “Rams” Squadron, 409 Tactical Fighter “Nighthawk” Squadron, and 410 Tactical Fighter (Operational Training) “Cougar” Squadron, all which fly the CF-18 Hornet.
It is also home to 417 Combat Support Squadron, flying the CH-146 Griffon helicopter, and 419 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, flying the CT-155 Hawk as part of the NATO Flying Training Canada program.
In addition, 4 Wing Cold Lake is comprised of a variety of other operational and support squadrons, units and branches whom support 4 Wing’s mandate for mission success.