Biggest Airport Is Born

by Frank Tibbo

Fred Griffin, a reporter for the Star Weekly, was sent here to report on what then seemed to be a mystery. Why, in the wilds of Newfoundland, were they building the largest airport in the world?

His story was dated July 15, 1939. He named it “Biggest Airport is Born.”

"Big airports - Croyden, Newark, LeBourget, Templehofer Field, Malton - are usually near great cities. But in the heart of Newfoundland, 200-odd miles north and west of St. John's, the capital, the largest airport in the world is nearing completion.

"This is the Newfoundland Airport, destined to put the Atlantic on wheels. I have just come from a visit to it - and to Botwood, the flying-boat base, of which more presently.

"The graphic phrase about wheels was used by Squadron leader H.A.L. Pattison, ex-R.A.F. and Cambridge University, who is airdrome control officer, which means manager. A long-service veteran, he flew in France, on the Indian frontier, in Palestine. For two years, 1933-35, he was on exchange duty with the RCAF and served at Camp Borden, Ontario.

"Now, sent out originally by the British Air Ministry, he runs this greatest of airports, for the Newfoundland (commission) government which is responsible to the dominions office in London.

"Let us try to get straight this matter of "wheels"; also the difference between Botwood, which all the world knows, and the Newfoundland Airport, which nobody seems to have heard of outside of Newfoundland.

"For the past three years both Imperial Airways and Pan American, using Newfoundland as a way station between North America and Great Britain, have carried out successful trial flights with big flying boats.

"Up to the present the concentration has been on flying boats. Nevertheless it is expected that the future of Atlantic commercial flying lies with wheeled land planes rather than the more cumbrous boats. In a year or two or five regular flights will be made by high-soaring strato-planes.

Else why is the British government spending more than $4,000,000 to build deep in Newfoundland the greatest airport in the world? True, the Newfoundland government is putting up one-sixth, but then this is guaranteed by the British government acting through the dominions office.

"Why is the Canadian government setting up at Newfoundland Airport a large precise weather bureau unless it is that here shortly will be a landing place of immense strategic value in peace or war?

When work is finished this year Newfoundland Airport will have a paved surface - the aggregate of its immense runways - of 1,230,000 square yards. Compare with Malton's paved surface of 100,000 square yards, St. Hubert's 117,000 square yards and Ottawa's 142,000 square yards.

"Malton's main runway is 500 feet wide, but only 150 feet in the middle is paved, the rest being sod. Newfoundland Airport's main runway, to be finished by the end of this year, is paved fully for its 1,200 feet of width and its 4,800 feet of length. The other three, each 4,500 by 600 feet, are also paved.

"According to F.C. Jewett, chief engineer in charge of construction, enough pavement will have been laid at Newfoundland Airport to make a standard 20-foot highway 110 miles long, or one-third the distance between Toronto and Montreal.

"On the engineering side, as in setting up a weather service, Canada is playing a big role in this joint enterprise of Newfoundland and Great Britain - with Ireland and the United States also linked with this co-operative transatlantic effort. Four Canadian engineers are at Newfoundland Airport charged with its construction. Mr. Jewett and his principal aide, Bob Bradley, are both from St. Catherines, Ont. Both played considerable roles in building the Welland Canal.

"To come back to "wheels" and the value of Newfoundland Airport as an aerial halfway house on the North Atlantic. The reasons I have given are why a vast, so far untenanted airport is being built in a no-man's-land of upper Newfoundland.

"Now to explain Botwood, which, with Photographer Fred Davis, I also visited. Botwood and the Newfoundland Airport are not the same place. They are 45 miles apart. Botwood, a considerable outport which ships paper and ore, is on the Bay of Exploits, an arm of great Notre Dame Bay which snuggles into Newfoundland's mid-north shoulder.

"Botwood, lying in a magnificent, almost landlocked anchorage, is one of the finest possible harbours for a sea-settling airplanes.

"Botwood is subsidiary to the Newfoundland Airport from which it is administered. At Newfoundland Airport, 45 miles away, are the weather, wireless, and other machinery and staff for sending and bringing airplanes over the Atlantic - except for a local wireless control in effect at Botwood when the big flying boats are a-wing.

"Botwood has wharfage and fuelling facilities for handling the flying boats and a fine sweep of salt water. At Newfoundland Airport is an aerodrome without a peer, a super-flying field of tomorrow, planned and built for the needs of years to come. It is designed to handle the largest transport liners of the future, maybe many squadrons of bombers or pursuit planes. Who knows? It needs no great imagination to guess at its value in event of war and to foresee it has a halting place of Canadian-built or American bombers en route to Britain or Europe.

"Newfoundland Airport is truly immense. You stand on "Piccadilly Circus," heart of its paved runways, and it is like looking across an infinity of sea or prairie as the asphalt stretches away, dipping off to the bush which lies, its roots hidden, on the horizon. The airport here crests for, oddly enough it is not flat but curved like the rim of the earth.

"Here three years ago was a scrub-treed, rock-strewn land. Now it is flat, except for its curvature as a thousand rinks. Three years ago, known as Hattie's Camp, because of some local woods operation, it had not even a railway station. Now it is one of the busiest stations on the long 550-mile stretch of Newfoundland Railway that curves up and across between Port-Aux-Basques and St. John's

"Here, however, is more than a busy railroad station. Here is a great airport which lies right on the great-circle route between Foynes, Ireland, and Shediac, N.B.

"Here, under Canadian engineers, is being rushed to completion a great construction job.

"About one square mile and a quarter of bush were cleared and rough graded. Over 250 acres was fine graded and about one-seventh of the total area paved. To do this over half a million dollars of equipment was brought in and put to work. As many as 900 men have been employed.

"Canals have been cut and tiled gutters installed along all the runways to drain away the water.

"After vegetable mould was taken off, in some cases cutting having to go as deep as ten feet, the clay was levelled and rolled. Then pavement was laid of bituminous macadam, the asphalt in emulsion form with stone being laid cold.

"A first course of 4 1/2 inches was laid to give strength, this being rolled and compressed to 3 1/2 inches. Over this was laid an inch of finer rock with asphalt emulsion, rolled to half an inch, to give wearing quality. Then over all was sprayed liquid asphalt, this being dusted with stone chips, to make the pavement watertight.

"And all for what? To have a great strategic base whose value, according to authority, would within 10 minutes of the outbreak of war be greater than the millions being spent on it.

"Newfoundland Airport," one man said, "is one of the great strategic moves Britain makes about once in a century. This airport is as significant as Singapore, the Suez Canal or Gibraltar."

"If you wish to see its Canadian and North American significance, look at a map and see how Newfoundland Airport is key to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the North Atlantic coast.

"Now let us go around the great airport and see what there is to see. We take a car and drive along the sweep of runway and then a further half mile to Gander Lake, a lake 35 miles long, from one to four miles wide. Gander Lake is significant for, in the opinion of experts, it will one day replace Botwood as a flying boat harbourage.

"They say it is big enough to take the biggest boat to its bosom and afford safe getaway. The British Air Ministry, however, stays sold on Botwood. It is said to feel that Gander Lake's sloping high shores make a cup that is risky for landing or taking off.

"Chief building at Newfoundland Airport is the three-storey administration building with its glass control tower atop. Nearby is the new hangar. In it are three of the only four planes in Newfoundland.

"One plane is a light craft belonging to Imperial Airways but flown by pilot Donald McGregor, graduate of the Toronto Flying Club, another Canadian playing a part in this imperial airport. Every morning at 6:30, unless the weather makes it impossible, young McGregor rolls out his little orange craft and in it soars aloft to 14,000 feet. This is part of Canada's weather service here, of which more anon. Don McGregor not only observes clouds, weather, visibility, ice formation, if any, but carries instruments that automatically record temperature, pressure and wind.

"Here at the airport are powerful transmitting and receiving stations. On different wavelength it is possible at one time to work Foynes, 2,000 miles away; Port Washington, L.I., and planes across the Atlantic.

"A plane taking off at Foynes will be controlled by station EIQ there. Half way across it will relinquish control to Newfoundland Airport's VOAC. From that point until he lands, there will be constant communication with this pilot.

"Within 20 miles of the airport the plane will come within range of the blind landing system whereby in fog or rain a machine may be brought down to the main runway even though the runway may be invisible a hundred feet up. Direction of this runway is laid right along the great circle route. A homing pilot, tired from 15 hours over the Atlantic, blinded by ceiling zero, has merely to ride the radio safety lane and lay his wheels on its wide welcoming surface.

"Newfoundland Airport has no "beam." Instead, wireless men explained, there is this ultra short-wave beacon system. From the main marker beacon 450 feet from the end of the main runway the electric signal goes out constantly in a narrow path for 20 miles. When a pilot, flying blind, reaches this limit he must fly around until he picks up the impulses on his instrument. Then he simply flies in on the track.

"All a night-flying pilot will see coming in will be a line of lights gleaming down the middle of the long broad runway on which he will land, and the lesser, scattered boundary lights on either side. The runway lights covered over by flat tops so low that a plane's wheels may safely run over them, merely gleam out around at ground level and cannot dazzle him.

"Such is the ingenious simplicity of the lighting. Lights on the three lesser runways are green at each end and white in between. Those on the great main runway are also green on each end but the more than half mile of lights between are sodium vapour lights which, after 20 minutes of warming up, glow a rich amber that penetrates a fog and will be a welcoming line to a blind-landing pilot.

"It is not possible either to go into wireless details. There are aerials, 150 and 100 feet high for high-wave, medium-wave and short-wave broadcasting. There are five transmitters which may be handled by remote control from the receiving station. There are teleprinters and every imaginable modern device for handling what may one day in peace, and most certainly in war, be a tremendous air traffic."

Editors note: Malton Airport has since been renamed Pearson International Airport serving Toronto.

Contributed by F. Tibbo

top return to top