Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement July 23, 1986


Captain Douglas Fraser

On August 11, 1935 the still of the forest which is now the Town of Gander, was shattered by the drone of a small single engine biplane carrying two British Air Ministry officials and piloted by a Newfoundlander familiar with the area.

fraserThe two officials were assigned the task of finding a centrally located area for an airport to accommodate a transatlantic passenger and mail service.  The pilot they chose to assist them was Captain Douglas Fraser, a well tried and proven pilot.                                                

Captain Fraser was asked to fly the men around Newfoundland suggesting and surveying locations which met their very specific criteria laid down by the British Air Ministry.  Captain Fraser told the men the only location suited to their purposes was Gander, and upon seeing the area the officials agreed and work on the airport began later that year.                                                                    

Captain Fraser, now in his 80’s and living in  St. John’s, recalls that at the time when construction began, all work had to be done by hand by 900 plus men who lived and worked in Gander until the airport was completed in 1939-40.  Captain Fraser remembers the men going out in to the field to remove boulders as though they were going “berry picking.”

It was a hard life, says Captain Fraser, and the men had to be housed and fed for long periods so it was understandable how sometimes tempers would flare and disputes would occur.  One way the contractors handled this problem was to have the men work at night and pay overtime.

Though, says Captain Fraser, there wasn’t much to entertain the men, they did have a monthly dance.  The men would contribute part of their wages to hire a train engine and a couple of cars to make a run to Grand Falls and pick up wives and young ladies to be guests at the dance.

On one occasion, Captain Fraser recalls, the crew of this train, disgruntled over their fee for the service, refused to make the run. 

Not to be deprived of their monthly entertainment, though,  Captain Fraser and three of his companions took a rail speeder car and went to Botwood where they took an engine from the rail yard, went to Bishop’s Falls, picked up a couple of cars and then went on to  Grand Falls to pick up their guests.

The engine wouldn’t go fast enough for them so once again in Bishop’s Falls, they commandeered a second engine and continued to Gander where they held their dance as usual.  The distance of rail between Gander and Grand Falls covered was about 160 miles. 

Captain Fraser remembers summonses were issued to the men but these were ignored.  “there was only one policeman and what the hell could he do against 900 men, he wouldn’t show his nose in Gander,” says Captain Fraser.

Work on the airport was completed in 1939-40.  That same year the first plane to land on the complete airport was again a small single-engine bi-plane, a Fox Moth Voade, and was once again piloted by Douglas Fraser. doug fraaser

Captain Fraser remembers the landing as “just a regular ski landing,” thus Gander International Airport had its beginning.

Captain Fraser recalls early aviation in Newfoundland a “dangerous business” and is content in his retirement to remember the early days of Gander and flying.

He says in his day pilots flew planes whereas today, the pilot just sets everything and then goes back and sits down.  All he has to do is land the plane when he reaches his destination.  Planes in the early days were almost literally held together with wire and bobby pins, he said


Ed Note: Also read Fraser Rd.

researched by Carol Walsh

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