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Airport turns 70


2008 is considered as the 70th birthday of Gander International Airport. Many consider 1938 the birthday because it was that year that the first aircraft landed. True the airport was conceived in 1935 and construction was not complete until 1939, therefore, some may disagree with 1938 as the birthday. I was asked what I consider the five most significant events in the airport's history. My answer follows, however, I realize that others may have a different list of events or dates - and, of course, they may be correct.

Aviation - 2008 is considered as the 70th birthday of Gander International Airport. Many consider 1938 the birthday because it was that year that the first aircraft landed. True the airport was conceived in 1935 and construction was not complete until 1939, therefore, some may disagree with 1938 as the birthday.

I was asked what I consider the five most significant events in the airport's history. My answer follows, however, I realize that others may have a different list of events or dates - and, of course, they may be correct.

Decision made to Construct Airport

The most significant event in the history of Gander International Airport was made in the summer of 1935 when this was a boreal forest and there were a lot of ganders and they all had feathers.

It was a meeting in Ottawa called an Air Conference, and concerned a North Atlantic Civil Aviation agreement between Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland and Newfoundland. Several individuals and/or groups had explored various areas of Newfoundland - areas as close as possible to the Great Circle Route between New York and London.

The representatives decided to establish Botwood as a base for flying boats and Hattie's Camp (Gander) for land-based aircraft. Great Britain and Newfoundland would provide the cash. Great Britain would provide 82 per cent of the capital and would lend Newfoundland the remaining 18 percent. In June 1936, a band of 40 workmen arrived at the site selected.

First aircraft landing

Jan. 11, 1938 was the day in Gander's history that we remember as the first aircraft landing. The pilot was Captain Douglas Fraser and he was flying a Fox Moth with registration VO-ADE. Accompanying him was engineer George Lace. Fraser said years later during an interview: "I can remember it quite well, I think it was five people who met me. It was a day like today, blue sky and not a cloud in the sky. I had been commissioned to take a doctor to Lethbridge - that wasn't the name then - and on my way back I touched in at Gander, why I don't know, but I just put down for a few minutes." Fraser's name is on one of the oldest streets in Gander, and in 1987 he was inaugurated into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame.

The day we began

Nov. 30, 1938, is the date that many consider to be the airport's operational beginning. On this day, the staff that operated the facility at Botwood, mainly the radio staff, were transferred to Gander. New facilities had been built in Gander in preparation for the transfer, and the government appointed H.A.L. Pattison as the first Aerodrome Control Officer, a position later referred to as airport manager. It was, however, almost a year later, Oct. 31, 1939, before all of the construction was completed.

Gander's Role in Second World War

One of the most significant dates in Gander's unique history is Nov. 9, 1940. It was on this day that the first military aircraft were ferried across the North Atlantic, a precursor of thousands that followed. Historians have estimated that Gander's role in this capacity combined with the air cover for convoys and antisubmarine patrols shortened the war.

On April 1, 1941, Newfoundland transferred operational responsibility of the airport to Canada for the duration of the war. That decision brought a bomber squadron along with a fighter squadron and a strong army contingent to protect what now had become a vital Allied military base with multi operations. The United States Army Air Force stationed a major contingent of several thousand troops, airmen and aircraft here bringing the military population to approximately 10,000.

April 1, 1949 - Confederation with Canada and the Department of Transport took control of the airport.

At the conclusion of the Second World War hostilities, it became evident very quickly that the advancement of military transport aircraft during the war would spawn a trans-Atlantic air trade.

The first evidence of this was on Oct. 23, 1945, when the first commercial landplane, an American Overseas Airline (AOA) DC-4, landed at Gander en route to Europe. Newfoundland definitely did not have the finances necessary to double the infrastructure required to move the airport to a world-class civilian facility. Had confederation with Canada not materialized one has to wonder if the financing for required expansion would have been acquired.

Britain, who financed the original construction, was almost bankrupt because of the Second World War. The Canadians had already been severely admonished for spending money on foreign soil. Political pressure had stopped them from completing a road from Gander to Lewisporte. The road was to provide an alternate means of getting vital fuel to Gander in the event the railway was sabotaged.

The airport, which at the beginning of the Second World War was the largest in the world, played a significant role in the Allied victory and had evolved into a first-class military centre. However, the world was about to see a dynamic commercial aviation industry thrust upon it through North Atlantic flights. The Canadian Department of Transport spent tens of millions of dollars making it into an International Airport. Two major runways and taxiways were built and later expanded, and a first-class terminal building was opened in 1958. (Capt. Sam Miller in PAA 114, B707, was the first to use the new terminal on Oct. 27, 1958). All this was necessary if Gander was to accommodate the thousands of airliners that required fuel to ply the Atlantic trade.

Other events that I considered were:

- 1950 when the Department of Transport announced policy to clear airport of housing.

- 1951 when the Oceanic Control Centre (ATC) transferred from Moncton to Gander.

- 1953 when EPA moved its head office to Gander and

- 1984 when EPA moved from Gander.

Next week: The Americans and Gander.

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