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The Beginning

by Frank Tibbo

Any well-researched story about the genesis of Gander will inevitably touch on Imperial Airways. The British airline that became British Overseas Airlines Corporation (BOAC), today's British Air, hired the pilots who searched for a suitable site for Newfoundland's first airport.

Amongst the information contained in the Newfoundland Archives is file no. 229/33, a document called: "For the Encouragement of Aerial Enterprise." The Newfoundland Legislature, on 14 July 1933, drafted legislation which reads in part: "Newfoundland agrees to grant Imperial Airways full right and permission to operate air services between Newfoundland and other countries and . . . the right to operate air service within the territory of Newfoundland for the transport of passengers, mail and or freight."

The reason the search was on for a Newfoundland airport is found in the following excerpts from a Dominions Office Dispatch regarding plans for Transatlantic Air Service as contained in the Public Archives of Canada, MG 30 E243, Vol. 8:

Downing Street
August 9th, 1935
NO. 320


His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom has been giving prolonged consideration to the problem of establishing an air service for the carriage of mails and passengers by heavier than air aircraft across the North Atlantic between England and Canada and United States at the earliest possible date . . .

2. ......plans for Transatlantic flying must for the time being be based on the use of flying boats. It is however proposed, as mentioned in paragraph 6 below, that an experiment should also be made with landplanes.

6. Although, as already stated, it is thought here that at the present stage of aeronautical progress flying boats afford the best prospect for the successful development of trans-Atlantic air communications, it is proposed, in addition, to construct two experimental long-distance land planes in order to test out this alternative method of transportation, and it is hoped that they will be ready for service in early 1937.

7. In order that the necessary ground organization be put into hand without delay, a preliminary survey is being immediately undertaken by Air Ministry experts to locate suitable bases in Newfoundland for use by both flying boats and land planes.

That letter from the Prime Minister's Office was the catalyst that would eventually get Doug Fraser of Imperial Airways flying over Hattie's Camp.

Doug Fraser: "You must remember that I was given the specifications from England where they wanted to locate an airport and the specifications were pretty hard to meet in Newfoundland. You could’t find another area which didn’t have a mountain or hill within so many miles, five I think it was, of over four hundred feet. This was the only area that filled the bill.” (From a 1988 tape recording of an interview in the author's possession)

Transatlantic flying was in its infancy and before it could safely proceed it was necessary to have refuelling sites along the great circle route between New York and London. An air conference was held in Ottawa in December, 1935 with representatives from Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Irish Free State and Newfoundland were invited to send representatives in anticipation of refuelling sites in these two countries.

Officials of the British Air Ministry visited Newfoundland in late 1935 and selected Botwood as the site for the flying boat base and a site near Milepost 213 on the rail line as a land plane base.

The site at Milepost 213, which was in the vicinity of Hattie's Camp, was to be called the Newfoundland Airport. Cobb's Camp, a few miles west of the site is also mentioned in historical documents.

The British Government paid 80 per cent of the construction cost and lent Newfoundland the remaining 20 per cent. The British Air Ministry recruitment for all types of workers started and work began on the Newfoundland Airport in June 1936. That year 500 men were working at, what would eventually be called, Gander Airport. In 1937 that figure grew to 900.

In the meantime, things at Botwood were progressing. The Botwood radio station was ready in January, 1937 and the Meteorological staff arrived in June of the same year.

The first Atlantic commercial flights took place on 5th July, 1937. The companies arranged for two flights, one east-bound and the other west-bound. Pan Am clipper departed Botwood for Foynes, Ireland, and Imperial Airways Caledonia departed Foynes for Botwood.

It was soon realized that the main Atlantic air traffic would be land planes, and at the conclusion of the flying boat season in 1938, operations were moved from Botwood to Gander. Fifty people were involved with the dramatic transfer. November 30, 1938, marks the actual bringing of Gander into the world as an operational radio station.

By the outbreak of war in 1939, Gander was operational, and on November 10, 1940, the first formation of bombers for Britain, made in the U.S.A., took off from Gander. These flights were first organized by the "Atlantic Ferry Organization" - later to become the R.A.F. Transport Command.

In 1941, the RCAF took responsibility for the operations of the airport - up to that time the Newfoundland staff had played a significant role, performing all the services. In 1942, the Newfoundland Government handed control of the airport to the RCAF. It was returned to the Newfoundland government after the war.

Contributed by Frank Tibbo

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