In-flight Refueling in Post War Gander

By J. Pinsent

Recently we received email form a lady in the UK asking if we were interested in receiving some photos her father took while working in Gander in the 40’s, after the war. We discover that her father worked for Sir Alan Cobham’s company, Flight Refuelling Ltd. This same company refueled the Botwood flying boats in the late 30’s. Now they were furthering their technology and using Gander as their North American base during the startup of commercial trans Atlantic air travel.

Ray Harris was the ladies father and he kept a pictorial record of his work while in Gander. We now became more enlightened into another facet of Gander’s aviation history. In flight, air-to-air, refueling.

Alan Cobham was a WWI pilot and after the war created Cobham’s Flying Circus performing throughout the UK but he had an idea to pursue air-to air refueling to avoid having to land for fuel, especially over hostile territories in Africa and parts of the middle east. After Lindberg’s flight across the North Atlantic, this new region became more of a challenge. In 1934 Alan Cobham, he was later knighted and became Sir Alan, started up the company Flight Refuelling Ltd. just in time to service the new flying boat service on the North Atlantic using his new technique of air-to-air refueling. Gander airport became his base of operations, renting the only hangar at Gander, later to be known as Hangar 20.

After the war, because of the success of the North Atlantic flying boat operation, the British government promoted the idea of a non-stop London - Bermuda route using in-flight refueling.  WWII Lancaster bombers were converted into refuelers and stationed in the Azores to service these flights but sights were also set on the North Atlantic, again. BOAC converted a B24 into a cargo aircraft and started up a non-stop Montreal – London flight using in-flight refuelers located at Shannon airport and Gander (Goose Bay was to be used as an alternate if required).

In 1947 Flight Refuelling Ltd again, rented Hangar 20 in Gander to set up an in-flight refueling station, relocating a team of specialist there from the UK along with their converted Lancasters.  Ray Harris was one of these specialists. He was later made a director and continued with the company until his retirement.



The experimental air-to-air refueling lasted until 1949 after over 50 successful missions. Gander airport again played a significant role in the advancement of air navigation procedures. Safety requirements dictated in-flight refueling not be permitted for passenger carrying aircraft. Now larger aircraft were carrying cargo as well as passengers. This sort of dampened this newly developed technique.

Flight logs

By this time the military could see the potential advantage in these new aviation procedures. Sir Alan Cobham could also see the financial returns on all this technology his company had developed and monetary agreements with the military establishment were carried out. The company expanded. To day, the company Sir Alan started, has now become transformed into a multi technical enterprise developing aviation technology throughout the world.

As a passing thought about Sir Alan and Gander. When the new town was built in 1955, it was decided that all streets would be named after pioneering aviators. Sir Alan has a street named after him in Gander. It is a very short street leading off the main highway into the town. It only has one building on it. That building is an auto service station. Very fitting indeed.


Editors Note: We recently received more photos of the Flight Refueling operations in Gander, this time from Jim Watson, given to him by his uncle, the late Ian Sword. These images have been added to the original slide show.


contributed by the Gander Airport Historical Society




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