Gunnar Laurell

by Frank Tibbo

The fact that Gander Town Council named a street to honour the life a local pilot would indicate that there was something unusual about him. After all, there have been hundreds of local pilots who have not received that honour, and never will.

An air traffic controller can recognize the voices of local fliers after hearing them a few times. No matter what aircraft the pilot is flying, the voice gives away the identity.
The first time I heard Gunnar Laurell's voice coming through a speaker in Gander Control Tower, I knew that I would never have difficulty in identifying it the next time. His distinct Swedish accent didn't change in all the years that I was privileged to know him.
Laurell was born in Sweden in May 1923. As soon as he was old enough, he joined the Swedish Air Force. In 1951 he left the military and applied for entry to Canada. Gunnar immigrated to Canada in July 1951 and was hired by Arctic Wings, a company doing work in northern Canada.

Gunnar Laurell was trained in northern flying and soon proved that he was a valuable asset to any company that employed him.

On December 12, 1953, an un-forecasted blizzard forced him to make an unscheduled landing in the middle of the storm. He had been flying from Ferguson Lake, 350 miles north of Churchill, Manitoba, to Baker Lake. In order to keep alive in the minus 40 degree temperature and 110 kilometre winds, he built an igloo. He then drained oil from his Norseman's engine to light an emergency heater.

Search and rescue looked for nine days with no sign of Laurell or his aircraft. Then on the tenth day, just as Search and Rescue were thinking of calling off the search, a crew flying a Lancaster spotted him vigorously waving from the wing of his aircraft.

As the aircraft was dropping emergency supplies, Laurell signalled that all he needed was fuel. Fuel was dropped. Laurell took off for Baker Lake and arrived just in time to join the RCAF Christmas party. Those who had written him off didn't know the plucky Swedish-Canadian.

His natural ability, intelligence and training combined to make Gunnar Laurell a pilot that other pilots talk about. Many pilots learned skills from Gunnar that no flight school could teach them – skills that could and did save lives.

Gunnar eventually applied for a job with Eastern Provincial Airways, and it was at this time that his distinct voice became so well known on the local air waves.

Many called him Gunnar the Kid, but to the natives of northern Labrador, Gunnar was a flying wizard that seemed to show up when they had given up hope that any aircraft could land. But he became more than a pilot who showed up with the mail, food and supplies; he became their friend. He braved many a storm to provide emergency medical evacuation, often safely landing in places where a lot of pilots would damage or wreck an aircraft.

When he was almost fifty, Laurell decided to give up the northern stuff and leave it to the younger pilots. He had something else in mind. In 1972 he was hired by the Newfoundland Forestry Service as a water-bomber pilot. He was assigned Canso water bomber No. 6 and flew it for the remainder of his career, another 16 years.

Gunnar probably wasn't happy on the day he reached 65 because it meant retiring. He had flown over 28,000 hours on more than 40 types of aircraft. The Newfoundland government decided that nobody else was going to fly Canso No. 6; so they retired it as well, and donated it to the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. It sits outside of the museum, a fitting memorial to Gunnar.

He was a remarkably talented pilot whose dedication and passion for flying was contagious. Gunnar only lived a short time after his retirement. He visited Sweden a few months after his retirement to visit Aka, his twin brother who is a surgeon. While there, Gunnar and Aka flew together in Aka's private aircraft. Not long after his return to Gander, he was stricken with a heart attack and died on December 30, 1988.


Contributed by F. Tibbo

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