30s small









Early Days At Gander

By S/L H. A. L. Pattison

It is difficult to give the exact date when Gander was hatched. It emerged from it’s shell shyly and very slowly. At that time, in 1936, there was little interest in the world in intercontinental flying. Regular services across the Atlantic by commercial aircraft was considered to be something for the far off future, and a development such as an Atlantic airport which involved a large capital expenditure, on a 1936 standard, was not one which could be rushed to completion regardless of cost in those days of meager national budgets.

The decision to build an airport in Newfoundland was made at an air conference in Ottawa in 1935, when agreement was reached by the governments concerned to permit one British and one American company to undertake experimental flights across the North Atlantic, with a view to the early establishment of regular service. It was hoped that these experimental flights could commence in 1936, using flying boats which were already in operation by the companies and were considered to be suitable to undertake the flights under experimental conditions. It was considered that land planes would certainly be brought into operation on the North Atlantic with the normal progress of technical development in aircraft, but at this time no land plane had been developed suitable for the experimental flights. Also the time taken to develop the necessary airports would be such that it was essential to conduct the early experiments with flying boats, as a flying base could be developed at a very short notice. Consequently, late in 1935, officials of the British Air Ministry visited Newfoundland and selected Botwood as the location of the flying boat base and this present location of Gander for the development of the land plane base.

Early in 1936 work commenced in England, Canada, and the US to establish the necessary ground services on each side of the Atlantic, and in Newfoundland. At the same time the Eire Government came into the picture and commenced the establishment of a flying boat base, with the necessary wireless and meteorological facilities, at Foynes on the river Shannon.

The Newfoundland Government assumed the responsibility for the development of Botwood and the airport with the assistance, both financial and technical, of the Air Ministry. In June, 1936, a band of 40 workmen arrived at the site selected. To them the site was the same as any other uninhabited location on the railway, just thick forest and bush on either side. They made their tents on the railway edge and commenced to clear an area of one mile square. They were preparing the ground for an airport, but what an airport was they had not the least idea.

The location had no name, and in those days if one had reason to visit the area it was necessary to explain to the railway engineer exactly where they wanted the train to stop. Travellers on the train were deeply interested in the large clearing which was being made and the area became known as the Airport, although no one visualized the ultimate development and considered it a dream that aircraft would ever be seen in this location.

The name Gander is now so familiar that one cannot realize why there were early difficulties in arriving at a name. The official title ‘Newfoundland Airport’ was adopted in the early stages of development, but when the airport came into operational use it was realized that such a broad title was unsuitable and a name given the location was adopted.

In August, 1936, a technical representative of the Air Ministry arrived in Newfoundland with the primary objective of developing Botwood as a flying boat base and to install the radio facilities for the forthcoming experimental flights. In the meantime the Canadian Government, who has assumed responsibility for the meteorological services, had gathered the nucleus of a forecasting staff and commenced training in the specialized work for the Atlantic. This staff eventually arrived in June, 1937, ready for the first experimental flight. The Botwood Radio Station was ready for operation in January, 1937, with facilities for direct communication across the Atlantic and for aircraft, together with the necessary navigational assistance in the form of medium and high frequency direction finding installations, was one of the first installations of this type put into operation on the service basic. The first members of the radio staff from the Air Ministry arrived in Botwood  and commencement was made in recruiting a radio staff of Newfoundland operators. In January, 1937, communication was established with Foynes, which communication has been maintained to this day although the station was eventually transferred to Gander.

Little work was carried out at Gander during the winter of 1936-1937, chiefly due to the fact that winter was uneconomical. However, by the end of the summer season of 1936 considerable progress had been made. The working strength had risen to 500 and the acquisition of a large quantity of grading equipment had effective a surprising change in the forest and there were definite signs of the formation of the runways.

In the spring of 1937 there was considerable activity at both Gander and Botwood. The working force at Gander was increased to 900 and Botwood was ready to operate the experimental flights. The first commercial Atlantic flight was completed 5th of July, 1937, when on a simultaneous crossing the Pan American Clipper left Botwood and the Imperial Airways Caledonia left Foynes. The success of these flights and those which followed in 1937 was a happy augury for the future.

By 1938 there were signs that there might be land planes ready for the experimental service. To this end work was rushed at Gander in order to have at least the full length of the runways available with a hanger. However technical developments of the land based aircraft on both sides of the Atlantic did not fulfill expectations and the runways still remained unused. During 1938 it was realized that the main traffic across the Atlantic would be carried by land planes, and with the need for he permanent establishment of the radio station to be completed. It was decided to erect the permanent Atlantic  wireless organization at Gander. Thus on the completion of the flying boat season at Botwood in 1938, control, radio and meteorological organizations, which at that time had reached a strength of about 50, moved over to Gander. It can be taken that this date, 30th, November, 1938, marks the actual bringing of Gander into the world as an operational station. The move itself is quite a story of its own, as the date chosen coincided with a particularly heavy blizzard. However communication with the outside world showed no break, and when the key was lifted at Botwood for the last time Gander was ready to take over.

With the advent of spring, 1939, the end of the project was well in hand. There remained the paving of the full width of the runways and completion of the drainage. The airport could be considered fully ready for operation but still there was the lack of suitable aircraft for Atlantic flights. During the summer season  flying operations did commence with the arrival of two refueling aircraft which were used throughout the summer 1939 to refuel in the air all Imperial Airway’s flying boats leaving Botwood on the eastbound crossing.

By the outbreak of war in September 1939, Gander was complete and ready for civil operations. The cost, which had given so much trouble in peace time, was forgotten. The value of a fully operational airport in such a strategic position could not be assessed, particularly when one realizes that at the time, Gander was the only operative airport in Newfoundland or in the Maritimes.

It appeared that commercial operation on the Atlantic would be suspended, but the civil staff waited not knowing what the military development would be. However, as a civil operation, during the winter of 1939 experiments were carried out to test the possibility of operating on wheels under winter conditions. These experiments had most valuable results, as in the following winter delivery of military aircraft to Great Britain was commenced using the original civil organization. These operations continued until the time of the formation of the RCAF Ferry Command.

During the winter of 1939-1940 when experiments were being carried out on the runways, sufficient confidence was obtained to give agreement to a visit of RCAF planes on a survey flight. Thus the first RCAF aircraft and personnel to arrive in Gander was the occasion of a short visit of 2 Hudson bombers on the 10th of February, 1940. The first detachment to be posted for duty arrived some months later. At that  time the airport was still under the control of the civil organization, and the detachment of Officers and men accommodated with the civilian resident staff in the only buildings available at that time, the old Administration Building, and the construction engineering mess which has since been removed. The experiences of this detachment is quite another story, which could probably best be told by some of these early RCAF pioneers. In spite of the lack of accommodation and the amenities as they now exist at Gander, members of this detachment still look back and talk about the ‘good old days’. With the expansion of RCAF operational requirements Gander was formally taken over by the RCAF from the civil authorities for the ‘Duration of the War’ in April 1941.


Webster note: The above article was written by Gander's first CEO, S/L H. A. L. Pattison, in 1943. S/L Pattison was given the responsibility to oversee the development of Botwood and Gander by the British Air Ministry so the historical accuracy of this report is undeniable, given the time it was written. This information was published in the RCAF Gander, December edition 1943, magazine.


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