Thank you to CNN. From Gander Newfoundland, British aviators Alcock and Brown boarded the world's first nonstop transatlantic flight and Amelia Earhart began her pioneering journeys there.
In June 1936, workers jumped off the Newfoundland Railway, and set about clearing land for what would become the world's largest airport, having one square mile of tarmac. Most of the people who built Gander were ordinary men from all over Newfoundland; the wages were good and the manual work was back-breaking but speedy.
In Jan 1938, a single-engine biplane made the first landing. With the threat of European war, Gander became a strategic post for the Royal Air Force Ferry Command. Too new to appear on maps, the base remained a secret as c20,000 North American-built fighters and heavy bombers were transported overseas. 3 new American bases opened, while 2 Canadian bases were built at Gander and Goose Bay. Thanks to its location between Europe and North America, the airport was the perfect fuel stop for pre-jet engine aircraft.
In WW2 Gander oversaw Allied aircraft flying to Europe. And it was a major factor in Newfoundland’s improved economy. 12,000 British, Canadian and American servicemen lived in crowded barracks beside the runways, and the base became a bustling community.
Post-war, the airport reverted to civilian control. Gander was an unlikely location for an international airport, yet the tip of this rocky Canadian isle remained important. By 1954, it was the largest airport anywhere! Planes went to New York, London, Berlin and Tel Aviv etc, with the clocks in the terminal showing what time zone their destinations were. Gander Airport became truly cosmopolitan!
Throughout the Jet Age of the late 50s and the 60s, most Transatlantic flights required to refuel at Gander. While the Cold War drew hard lines between eastern-bloc and western nations, Gander remained a safe haven for all. Even Soviet planes, banned from American soil, could land there.
Gander has remained involved in international aviation technology, hosting the first transatlantic test flights of the SST Concorde. And the airport was designated as an alternate landing site throughout NASA's Space Shuttle era .
As cross-continental travel increased, Gander became a refuelling stop for commercial aircraft. The biggest airlines of the day ran regular transAtlantic services via Gander. Soon the airport was annually handling 13,000 planes and 250,000 passengers, so they designed a new, artistic terminal with a colourful mural.
Refuelling jet engines wasn't necessary, so modern routes bypassed Gander and headed straight for US. Nonetheless in the later C20th, the airport remained busy. Planes from East German, Cuban, Czechoslovakian and Soviet Union airlines continued to land in Gander, often then flying to Cuba: a Communist European base. But after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Gander faded. In fact I’ve been to Canada a dozen times, but had never heard of Gander Airport.
The world was devastated by the terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001. Global air traffic in the USA halted and those already in mid-air were rerouted, to military and civilian airports across Canada - including Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and British Columbia.
Each pilot informed his passengers that there had been a terrorist attack in New York and the plane would be redirected. 38 aircraft landed unexpectedly at Gander that day, grounding c8,000 people on the airport's otherwise empty runways. The authorities told the pilot how to avoid the security threat.
Meanwhile Gander’s citizens urgently prepared food and shelter for the passengers. The citizens could have left the frightened passengers in the airport, but families warmly welcomed them into their homes. The population of Gander almost doubled overnight and thus began one of the most heartening stories to come out the Twin Towers catastrophe.
Years later Gander Airport won a starring role on New York's Broadway and in London's West End, thanks to the musical, Come From Away (2017). The show's Canadian husband-and-wife writer team, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, developed the book, music and lyrics. And a filmed version of the award-winning show will stream internationally in Sept 2021.
The 12 actors played multiple roles: locals and passengers. As the actors seamlessly switched character, by adding some clothing and changing their accent, the multiple role-playing enhanced the message of universal humanity.
The global success of Come From Away had other effects i.e Gander was back on the tourism map. Gander's famous lounge is currently being renovated, for these new tourists.
See a Rabbi who helped inspire Come From Away. Every year, British Rabbi Leivi Sudak travelled to New York to pray at the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s grave. In 2001 he planned to fly in and out again, within 24 hours. But two hours into his flight home, he noticed the American Airlines plane was flying in the wrong direction, and the pilot quickly announced there’d been an attack on the Twin Towers!
Back then R’Sudak had no idea that his experience would be used by a key character in the musical. For R’Sudak, his time in Gander showed the very best in humanity after an unthinkable act of terrorism. It was not a rich town, yet the town’s people brought blankets, food, soaps and clothes. They transformed a local school into a dormitory. In one of the scenes in the musical, Sudak’s character prepared a Sabbath meal, at which a Tibetan monk from the plane was among the 12 guests. And a local, who’d hidden his Judaism since the Holocaust, refound his heritage with R’Sudak.