Gander – gateway to America
In 1935, there were just bog and stunted spruce trees along the Newfoundland railway, but the Gander area on the eastern end of the island had four things going for it.
First, it was on that part of North America that was closest to Europe, and second, it was on a high, level, relatively fog-free plateau. Also, it was close to the Great Circle route between cities of the US East Coast and Europe, and the railway provided access for crews and equipment. Gander, in short, was the perfect spot for an airport.
Back in the 1930s, there hadn’t been regular transatlantic air travel, and the idea of turning the high plateau into an airfield for land-based airplanes – instead of flying boats – was born. Opinion was divided between the visionaries and the naysayers. The latter group included the Royal Air Force, which continued to send its planes across the Atlantic on boats until the early 1940s.
In the end, the visionaries won out, and by October 1939 the airport was completed – just in time for the Second World War. It was taken over by the Royal Canadian Air Force, with large contingents of the US Army Air Force and the RAF Ferry Command.
On November 11, 1940, the first daring transatlantic delivery of seven Lockheed Hudson bombers, piloted by civilians, was successfully undertaken. By the end of the war, around 12,000 Allied planes had made the crossing.
This meant that a large number of pilots and crews were familiar with the North Atlantic, and ground staff now knew how run complex operations.
The logical step for airlines like SAS was to get into the transatlantic passenger service, but their planes couldn’t make it in one hop – which was good news for Gander, even if was only a fuel stop and very few travelers used Gander to originate or terminate a flight.
But it was in Gander that passengers on SAS flights from Scandinavia got their first North American refreshments and stretched their legs on their way to the Big Apple.
This timetable extract shows the central place that Gander occupied in early transatlantic travel:
Civilians in postwar Gander lived in converted military barracks. At the top of the photo is the Ferry Command area, whose hangars 21 and 22 became the hub of postwar civilian aviation activities. In 1959, a new terminal building was built on the “American side,” including the SAS residences shown here:
The below photo from the late 1940s shows an SAS DC-4 on the ramp in front of hangar 22, which contained the passenger lounge and ticket counters.
This photo from the early 1950s shows the passenger lounge after an update with bright new colors. The SAS ticket counter was situated around the end of the row.
Text: Robert Pelley
Photos courtesy of Robert Pelley at bobsganderhistory.com