50 Years of Flight

NL GenWeb

Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement August 1, 1988
Contributed by Carol Walsh.

50 Years of Flight (GANDER AIRPORT)

On a crisp morning in 1935, the still of the forest was shattered as a single-engine biplane broke the horizon. Aboard were two British air Ministry officials, piloted by a young Newfoundlander, Captain Douglas Fraser. The Ministry had envisioned an airstrip reaching eastward from North america toward Europe, which might make transatlantic flight a practical reality. A high plateau in central Newfoundland provided the best location.

In June of ’36, workers spilled off the train at Milepost 213 on the Newfoundland Railway. Still incrdulous at the task they had been assigned, they set about clearing land for what would become the world’s largest airport, boasting one square mile of tarmac.

On Jan. 11, 1938, another single-engine biplane, Fox Moth VO-ADE, became the first plane to touch down at the completed “Newfoundland Airport.” It was piloted by none other than Capt. Douglas Fraser.

With the threat of war in Europe, Gander became a strategic post for the Royal Air Force Ferry Command. The airport was shrouded in screcy as fleets of American bombers and fighter aircraft were transported overseas.

As many as 10,000 servicemen lived in crowded barracks beside and between the runways, Essential services were provided from makeshift quarters wherever a niche could be found and soon the air base took on the appearance of a bustling community.

After the war, the airport reverted to civilian control and efforts began to move townspeople away from the runways. Construction began in the early 50’s on the present townsite and the airport settlement was eventually abandoned.

Strips of asphalt, once busy streets, can still be seen leading into the wilderness around the airport, where crumbling walls and foundations still nobly challenge the advancing forest.

The incredible resources of a world at war had conquered the problems of transatlantic flight, leaving the door open for development of commercial aviation throught the ’50’s and into the “Jet Age” of the ‘60’s.

Gander remained a springboard to Europe and became a common bond between aviators the world over. As the industry evolved, the airport continued its pioneering tradition through such projects as testing of the supersonic transport Concorde.

The town itself, meanwhile, developed into a truly internation community, influenced by virtually all cultures and nationalities and, oddly enough, lacking the traditional Newfoundland customs and dialects.

As a self-supporting service and distribution centre, today’s Gander has been aptly described as “the suburb of a city that doesn’t exist.”

© 2004 Carol Walsh and NL GenWeb