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History of Gander Oceanic/Area Control Centre

by J. Pinsent

Up until the postwar transition, transoceanic air traffic had been coordinated by the RAF, located in Prestwick and Gander, in conjunction with civilian employees at aeradio telecommunications centers in Gander and Shannon, Ireland.

It was understood Gander would, for many years, remain the western anchor for civil aviation transatlantic flights, a concept all but ignored during the heat of war.

In the post war era, prior to air traffic control, civilian passenger aircraft flying across the Atlantic was reaching a number that brought on the danger of collision. There also was a danger of collision when changing altitudes. This was intensified with increased speed and restricted visibility of being able to see and be seen.

Air traffic information was exchanged through radio communications between aircraft making everyone aware of who was flying in a particular airspace. If flying in a direction between 000 and 179 degrees you would fly at an even altitude ( ex. 12,000) Conversely if you flew between 180 and 359 degrees you would fly at an odd altitude (ex 11,000). Through international agreement altitude would be measured in increments of 1000 feet.

The volume of aircraft on the North Atlantic had reached such a level that safety was being compromised. Air traffic control was eventually implemented to ensure and maintain a safe orderly flow of air traffic.

The airspace over international waters became the responsibility of the international body ICAO, formed in 1947, to ask countries that adjoined these oceanic waters to provide for air traffic control (ATC). 

The ICAO allocation of the western North Atlantic airspace was assigned to Canada. Newfoundland was not part of Canada, yet the combination of Gander and Moncton provided the ATC function.  Responsibility for oceanic control was given to Moncton, with Gander tower in control of the airport and immediate area. 

The other provider states for the North Atlantic control areas were United Kingdom (Prestwick), Ireland (Shannon), Iceland (Reykjavik), Norway (Bodo), Portugal (Santa Maria) and the United States (New York). Whereas Shannon was shared with Prestwick, similar as Gander shared with Moncton, they became known as Shanwick Control.

Throughout the 1950s, transatlantic traffic increased dramatically. Landings rose by some 15 to 29 percent annually, though the size of the aircraft crossing the Atlantic remained much the same until the advent of the jet age in the early ‘60s. With Newfoundland joining the Confederation of Canada, one of the first considerations was to bring oceanic control back to Gander.

The Oceanic Centre was transferred to Gander from Moncton in 1950.  The control center was also responsible for all aircraft flying over and landing at airports in Newfoundland, with the exception of Labrador which came under the control of Moncton Centre

The new control centre was located at the VOAC Aeradio Centre in a small room. After a few years it was moved to the Air Canada (domestic) terminal very near the international terminal located in WWII RAF Hanger 22.  In 1958 it was again moved to the new main terminal building. During 1966 the control room was moved to another location within the terminal in order to make provision for future expansion to automation.  The Gander ATC Centre, in 1981, was moved to its current location.

Gander ATC Oceanic sector 1959

The Gander Oceanic/Area control (OAC) system consisted of flight data strips which were created from filed flight plans to keep track and separate all aircraft in their area. There is no radar coverage in Gander oceanic airspace. Aircraft were separated vertically or geographically. Those at the same altitude are separated in trail of each other by a specified time separation standard or geographically by a specified horizontal distance.

Communications to monitor the movement of oceanic aircraft with ATC was via HF radio relayed to the control centre by radio operators at the aeradio station located in Gander. Due to the limits on navigational equipment, both on board the aircraft and on the ground, plus communication difficulties, the first oceanic air traffic control system was very primitive compared with today.

Gander ATC Oceanic sector 1979

The introduction of jet aircraft in the early 1960’s, there was a dramatic upswing in airline traffic plus the increase in aircraft speeds, congestion on the North Atlantic dictated changes to ATC operations.

There evolved two distinct traffic flows between North America and Europe. An eastbound flow leaving in early evening and a westbound flow early the following morning. In the early 60’s, Prestwick and Gander OAC proposed they would introduce a published daily track system.

This new system would better organize aircraft in an orderly flow along with the efficient utilization of air space. Gander would promulgate tracks for eastbound traffic and Prestwick for westbound. On a timely basis, ATC controllers would daily devise beneficial routes by analyzing the upper winds aloft from weather maps and forward them to the various airline operation staff for flight planning to their destinations. This track system remains to this very day.

Automation in air traffic control became necessary to reduce controller workload as air traffic volume increased as well as speeds. Computers were to be developed to streamline air traffic operations plus the automatic transfer of flight data between Gander and Prestwick control centers, unheard of in a non-radar environment in this era of aviation. Voice communications between the two centre became only necessary for special occasions.

The development of computer operation requirements and procedure documents were completed in 1965-1966. An automated system was available for trial runs in the spring/summer of 1967.  This led to the commissioning of the Gander Automated Air Traffic System 1 (GAATS 1) system on February 15, 1968. Prestwick developed a similar system to interface with Gander for the exchange of the flight data.

As the development of newer navigation and improvements in aviation communications evolved, Canada was represented at international air traffic meetings and conferences by personal from the Gander ATC Centre. Through their experiences in oceanic control modernization, their input assisted in the implementation of changes to international standards and procedures, particularly with satellite communications and navigation.

Today the Gander Oceanic/Area Control Centre ranks highly in the air traffic control world along with the equal respect of the aviation industry. There are many names we could list as contributors to its history but it is agreed through the foresight of the late Mr. Cyril Rowsell DFC, a majority of the credit is given to his leadership that led to the standing and reputation of the present day Gander Oceanic/Area Control Centre.

Ed Note: Information derived from interviews, writings & papers of C. Rowsell, F. Tibbo & R. Chafe

submitted by GAHS

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