The decision to establish an air service across the North Atlantic is made at a conference in Ottawa. Representatives from Canada, the UK, Ireland and Newfoundland conclude that it is necessary to establish an airport in Newfoundland, near Gander Lake. This location is ideal because of its situation along the Great Circle Route, the shortest air distance between New York City and London. It is rumoured this decision is influenced by the growing threat of war. Following the conference, the British Overseas Airlines Corporation (BOAC – known today as British Air) hires pilots to find a suitable site for the airport. They select Botwood as the location of the flying boat base, and a site near Milepost 213, now known as Gander, as the land plane base. Before construction can begin, the forest is cleared to construct living quarters and cook houses to accommodate the workers; mostly working class manual from Newfoundland fishing villages, who are to be brought in.
Construction begins on the selected site near Milepost 213. The government of Newfoundland assumes the responsibility for the development of Botwood and Gander, with financial and technical aid from the British Air Ministry. The British government assumes 80% of the construction costs and lends the remaining 20% to the government of Newfoundland. A team of 900 people is amassed to construct what is to become the largest airport in the world at the time.
11 January 1938
The first airplane lands at Newfoundland Airport (now Gander International Airport); a Fox Moth VO-ADE, operated by Imperial Airways for the Newfoundland Government and flown by Captain Douglas Fraser.
World War II has begun, and Gander Airport is ready for civil operations. It is the only operative airport in the Maritimes at this time, giving it a unique strategic value. It becomes the main staging area for allied aircraft in movement toward Europe during the war. Its location makes it an ideal wartime refuelling and maintenance depot for bombers flying overseas.
10 November 1940
Captain D.C.T. Bennett leads the first fleet of seven Lockheed Hudson Bombers across the Atlantic from Gander, destined for Britain. This fleet is the first in a project by the Atlantic Ferry Organization (Ferry Command) to send newly built planes across the Atlantic. Over 10,000 aircraft are delivered overseas from Gander and Goose Bay over the course of the war. Winston Churchill remarks that Gander is “the largest aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic.”
The government of Newfoundland hands over total control of the airport to the Canadian Government and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and it becomes a military airfield with continuous delivery of planes to war zones. In addition to operations under the Ferry Command, planes are sent stopover sites for anti-submarine patrols dedicated to hunting German U-Boot submarines in the Northwest Atlantic. Thousands of soldiers in United States Army Air Corps / United States Army Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force are transported through Gander. The Royal Canadian Navy establishes a naval radio station at the airport, to be used as a listening post to detect the transmissions and positions of submarines and naval enemies.
The war is over and the government of Newfoundland regains control of the airport, converting it back to a refuelling stop on transatlantic passenger flights while maintaining the radio station. It is officially named Gander Airport and improvements are made to the runways and terminals. By the end of 1945, Pan-American World Airways, Trans-World Airline, Trans Canada Airlines (later Air Canada), and British Overseas Airway Corporation begin regular Atlantic air service through Gander. Post-war, families in large numbers begin arriving in Gander Airport Town, where jobs are plentiful. The military barracks are converted into living quarters for these families, and the RAF offices are converted into accommodations for passengers awaiting the refuelling of airplanes. Other barracks are converted into schools, churches, and commercial establishments for the growing community of Gander, which becomes a cosmopolitan town resembling a military base, constructed alongside the take-off and landing strips.
18 September 1946
The first major international crash of a civilian plane, a Sabena DC-4, takes place in Gander. For the first time in history, helicopters are used in the rescue operation. 26 people are killed in the crash.
Gander has become one of the busiest international airports in the world, buoyed by transoceanic traffic and handling 13,000 aircrafts and a quarter of a million passengers annually. The airport takes part in a national program designed to demonstrate to the world, through impressive architecture, that Canada is a modern and cosmopolitan country. Opened in 1959, the international flight embarkment room becomes the masterpiece of the airport. Considered by many as the most important modern space in small-town Canada, it features a 22-meter mural by Canadian painter Kenneth Lockhead, terrazzo flooring of Mondrian-esque geometric motifs, and avant-garde furniture made by renowned Canadian and international designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Robin Bush, Jacques Guillon, and Arne Jacobsen. Often characterized as “Mad Men-esque,” the interior of the flight embarkment room remains today in its original state, save for the addition of new glass and aluminum corridors for safety purposes.
19 June 1959
Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by Prince Phillip, visits Gander to officially open the newly built terminal.
Notable visitors to Gander include Frank Sinatra, who is allegedly told to wait his turn when trying to cut in line at the lounge bar. Elizabeth Taylor, traveling with Richard Burton, and Jackie Kennedy are each seen touching up their hair and makeup at the long vanity mirror in the women’s washroom. The Beatles first set foot on North American soil at Gander in February of 1964, passing through the airport on their way to perform on the Ed Sullivan show in New York, marking their first appearance on North American television.
Despite the influx of famous passengers, this period also marks the beginning of an era of decline for Gander Airport. The arrival of the jet age, which brings with it the possibility of crossing the Atlantic without stops, sees a drastic drop in the use of Gander by scheduled air carriers needing to refuel – the airport’s main form of traffic until this point. In addition, as residents begin to move into the newly constructed town of Gander, the older buildings at the airport are torn down, and Gander Airport Town ceases to exist. Paradoxically, this sudden diminishment in business for the airport results in the preservation of its unique architecture – where a heavily used terminal would have to undergo continuous renewal and renovation, Gander’s remains a time capsule of 1960’s modernist design.
24 December 1972
Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro is diverted to Gander Airport by a blizzard on his way back from Moscow, where he was celebrating the 55th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. He spends Christmas Eve in Gander, partaking in a tour of the historic town and trying his hand at tobogganing.
Muhammad Ali stops over in Gander following a two-week tour of the USSR. Back on North American soil and craving western-style food, he orders a burger and fries at the lounge restaurant. He cheerfully poses for pictures and signs autographs.
IL-62’s of Aeroflot (Russia), CSA (Czechoslovakia), Cubana (Cuba), Interflug (East Germany), and LOT (Poland) visit Gander daily on flights from Eastern Europe and the Americas. Interflug, Cubana, and Aeroflot also use Gander en route from Moscow and Berlin to Havana. These stopovers at Gander soon become known to potential refugees, and defectors begin to declare political asylum at the airport. Immigration policies are tightened in order to eliminate much of this traffic. Soviet dignitaries such as Nikita Khrushchev also frequent the airport in this period.
12 December 1985
Arrow Air Flight 1285 crashes on Departure Runway 21, taking the lives of all 8 crew members and 248 American soldiers who were returning home for Christmas after a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai desert. The explosion burns and deforests an area on the south side of the Trans-Canada highway, on the shore of Grander Lake, where a memorial still stands for what remains the largest known aviation crash in Canada.
11 July 1986
Margaret Thatcher touches down in Gander and signs the guest book during the period following her April 1986 decision to permit US fighter jets to use Royal Air Force bases for an airstrike against Lybia, in retaliation to the alleged Libyan bombing of a West Berlin discothèque.
23 July 1991
Nelson Mandela passes through Gander Airport. The same month, he attends the 48th national meeting of the African National Congress in Durban, South Africa; the first meeting of the party since its unbanning.
11 September 2001
With United States airspace closed due to the terrorist attacks, Gander Airport plays host to 38 airliners, carrying a total of 6,122 passengers and 473 crewmembers as part of Operation Yellow Ribbon. With the exception of Halifax, Gander receives more flights than any other Canadian airport involved in the operation. Gander is able to receive this much traffic due to its ability to handle large aircraft, and due to orders from Transport Canada and Navigation Canada instructing pilots coming from Europe to avoid airports in major urban centres of central Canada. The exceptionally generous reception given to stranded travellers by local Newfoundland communities is legendary and recognized as one of the few positive stories surrounding that day, and is dramatized in the award-winning musical Come From Away (2015).
24 April 2007
Former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. pass through Gander Airport en route to Moscow for the funeral of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin.
The Gander International Airport Authority presents plans to replace the existing terminal with a smaller, more efficient building. The 200,000 square foot international airport will be replaced by a building a quarter of its size, to keep the operation viable. The CEO at that time explains that while Gander Airport still has a strategic and vital role, it no longer benefits from the traffic it once had, and costs of maintaining the historic terminal are eating into profits. Residents and heritage advocates are concerned about the fate of the old building and petition to preserve it as a historic site.
Designs for the new terminal are revealed, with construction costs of $40 million. Passenger traffic rises by 27%, the highest year-over-year growth in Atlantic Canada and the most passenger traffic at the airport since 1980. Still, the aging terminal remains a financial burden, as its systems are out-dated and the building needs near-constant maintenance and repairs. Its membership in the National Airport System (NAS), which is separate from other regional airports owned by Transport Canada, prohibits the airport from competing for federal funds. The Canadian dollar is unstable, and the airport faces the financial burden of the approaching expiration of its lease deferral clause in 2016, at which point it will owe $80,000 in land rent to the federal government.
The lounge furniture would be acquired by The Rooms, the largest public cultural space in Newfoundland.
The issue is resolved when, as part of its capital planning review, the Gander International Airport Authority announces that it has opted to pursue a renovation of its air terminal building. Renovating the current facility avoids the hefty price of a new building while providing major finishes and upgrades. It also allows for the historic international transit lounge to be retained and restored as the Domestic Departures Hold Room. The proposed renovation carries a high construction cost of $26.4 million. However, in response to seven years of lobbying, the federal government has enacted a change in policy that allows NAS airports like Gander to compete for federal funding. Discussions are commenced with government officials about support for the project.