Why was the airport that was once the biggest in the world built in the middle of a wilderness? The answer is actually quite simple.
Gander International Airport is situated on the island of Newfoundland in the north-east of Canada
The airport was built in the 1930s north of Gander Lake around 60 km west of the coast which is often fog-bound. There was also a railway line there.
The range of the aircraft of that time was insufficient for direct flights between Europe and North America. They had to make an intermediate stop and refuel.
Gander and also the Irish airport Shannon became important springboards across the Atlantic. Both airports lie on the route between north-west Europe and north-east America, the shortest connection between the two continents.
Building work began in June 1936. At that time, Newfoundland was a self-governing British Dominion. The town of Gander was built to house the building workers and airport employees.
The first aircraft landed on the 11th of January 1938. In November of the same year operations began. Four paved runways were built, the longest named 03/21, with a length of 10,200 feet or 3109 metres.
After it opened, Gander quickly became biggest airport in the world. In the Second World War, the Gander station of the Royal Canadian Air Force was of great strategic importance.
On the 10th of November 1940 seven American military aircraft departed on a test flight from Gander to Belfast. All seven landed there safely.
After that, more than 20,000 fighter planes flew from the USA to Europe, with a refuelling stop in Gander. Supplies were brought to Britain and to the European front.
Approximately 20,000 people from the U.S. Air Force lived around the airbase.
After the war the local authorities regained responsibility for the airport and it wasn’t long until civilian aviation started.
At that time flying was risky. The strict safety standards of today did not exist.
Despite the risks, more and more people wanted to fly. Soon the big propeller airliners of BOAC, Pan Am and TWA were making the flight across the Atlantic.
At that time the journey from London to New York could take up to 18 hours.
Gander became the hub of commercial aviation ‘Crossroads of the World’ was the slogan.
In the 1950s, 13,000 aircraft carrying 25,000 passengers landed and took off every year at Gander airport.
The passengers at this time were often privileged people, such as film stars and leading politicians.
In the boom years, the rich and famous came into the improvised departure lounge, where they drank cocktails and were photographed. Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor and Winston Churchill were visitors to Gander.
On the 29th of June, 1959 a new terminal was opened by the Queen, but the boom years were to end soon. The DC4s, Stratocruisers and Constellations of the 40s and 50s soon became outmoded.
The Boeing 707 revolutionised transatlantic air travel.
This jet aircraft had a range of 8000 kilometres and could cross the Atlantic direct from London to New York in only eight hours.
And so traffic at Gander decreased rapidly during the 1960s, but the airport was still important for military purposes.
In 1964 Jack James became Airport General Manager. He didn’t just work here, he lived here. The airport was his life and he devoted himself to the commercial success of Gander.
In the late 60s, he targeted the Eastern Block countries. Their Tupolevs and Ilyushins used too much fuel for longer flights.
They flew regularly back and forth to Communist Cuba. Aircraft belonging to Aeroflot and the GDR airline Interflug became regular visitors to Gander.
Aeroflot came with around 60 flights per week. The crews were stationed at Gander. The Eastern Block airlines opened offices at the airport or in Gander.
Eastern Block heads of state such as Brezhnev and Honecker were personally welcomed by the airport director. Fidel Castro had his first ‘winter wonderland’ when as a guest of the airport management, he rode a toboggan in the snow.
Communist rulers were the new VIPs at the airport but their subjects saw an opportunity to escape.
After landing, the passengers always came into the terminal while the plane was being refuelled.
The waiting area did not officially belong to Canada, but if a passenger wanted to stay in Canada it was possible.
He or she could go to a member of the security staff and simply say the words ‘Save me’. That meant that the person was asking for political asylum.
From that moment on they were accepted by the Canadian authorities. The security police of the Communist country they had come from could do nothing.
In the documentary film ‘Gander, the airport in the middle of nowhere’ by Roland May, Wolfgang Jörn from Neubukow in the GDR describes how he and his girlfriend of that time flew from Berlin Schönefeld to Cuba.
They had however already decided that they would not be returning to their socialist fatherland.
GDR Interflug Ilyshin 62 aircraft by Maarten Visser – Wikipedia / public domain[/caption]
He describes how, on the return flight, he got off the Interflug plane in Gander and came into the waiting hall. He had brought his bag with him from the aircraft.
His girlfriend went to the security guard and said ‘Save me’.
Thankfully, he and his girlfriend were successful.
He still lives near Toronto and in 2018 he went back to his home town for the first time in thirty years.
When at the beginning of the 1990s, the end of Communism came the Eastern Block airlines had to close their offices. It was a sad time for colleagues on both sides.
The plane is the safest form of transport. We know that. The last major air crash near Gander happened in the 1980s.
On the 12th of December, 1985, a chartered Douglas DC-8 of the airline Arrow Air made a refuelling stop in Gander. It was bringing US solders who had been on a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai to Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
After take-off, the plane got into a stall and crashed. All 256 people on board were killed.
Presumed cause: Ice on the wings. Two other serious accidents took place near Gander: A Czechoslovak Ilyushin 18 in 1968 and a Sabena DC4 in 1946.
In the 1990s fewer and fewer International airlines came to Gander Airport. Its future seemed uncertain until in the north-east of the USA an unimaginable tragedy caused a crisis.
On the 11th of September 2001 after the terrorist attacks, 39 aircraft were diverted to Gander. 6122 passengers and 473 crew were stranded there and had to wait many hours in their aircraft.
Then the passengers were welcomed by the 10,000 inhabitants of the town of Gander. They were treated like members of the family. The guests and their hosts became close friends. When the time came to fly on, many parted with tears in their eyes.
In recognition of this, Lufthansa named its new Airbus 340 Gander/Halifax in 2002.
Nowadays not many aircraft land at Gander but at a height of 30,000 feet and above, around 1500 aircraft overfly Newfoundland on a normal day.
The control centre of the Canadian air traffic control for Canada and the North Atlantic, Nav Canada, is situated not far from the airport and is an important employer in the area.
Gander airport today is an airport for small passenger aircraft, private jets, regional airlines, freighters and military aircraft.
There’s an important flying school here: Gander Flight Training. It dates back to the year 1992, when its founder Patrick White bought a Cessna 150 and began as a flying instructor.
Today the school offers a wide range of flying courses. Students come from Canada and abroad to do their pilot training here.
With its long tradition in aviation, Gander is a place with a passion for flight. The people here are fascinated by planes and flying.
That makes Gander an ideal place for flight training. Newfoundland is a cold and often wet place with snow, ice and wind. Many people all over the world say, if you have learned to fly here, you can fly anywhere in the world.
But Gander like its sister airport Shannon, also has an important role as an emergency landing site for aircraft that get into difficulties over the Atlantic.
The coronavirus of 2020 brought new challenges for Gander and all other airports.
Gander International Airport has seen many highs and lows in the past.
Hopefully as the time moves on for this historic and remarkable airport, its future will remain secure.