The island of Newfoundland sits off the east coast of Canada. It is part of the easternmost province of the country — so far east, it has its own time zone, a half an hour later than anywhere else in North America.
And back in the 1920s, Newfoundland’s grassy fields were the jumping off points for transatlantic daredevil pilots. Amelia Earhart, Alcock and Brown and Charles Lindbergh all made trips across the Atlantic that started in Newfoundland. If you were going to attempt to fly across the Atlantic, it made sense to start as far east as possible.
Eventually, the British (who then controlled Newfoundland) decided there might be something to this whole “air travel” thing, and began building what was then one of the world’s largest airports. The town that would eventually grow up around the airport would come to be known as Gander (and its evolution is well-documented by the GAHS).
By 1938, the Gander airport was fully operational but mostly unused. There just weren’t enough planes in operation that could actually survive the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. In the two decades before World War II, only 100 planes had crossed the Atlantic — 50 others had tried and failed and 40 people had died in various attempts.
In 1939, when World War II began in Europe, and Britain need support, the American and Canadian governments began shipping planes to Europe by boat. But many were lost to German submarines and other naval actions.
To counter this problem, the British came up with the idea of putting a bladder inside the planes which would serve as a spare fuel tank, now giving the pilots enough fuel to make it across the Atlantic.
The first crossing involved seven planes and took place on a freezing night in November of 1940. The pilots had to fly in the dark because lights could alert the Germans. Miraculously, all seven made it.
Over the course of the war, around 20,000 planes were brought to Gander to be flown across the Atlantic.
After the war, civilian air travel began to take off and many flights coming from across the Atlantic still needed to stop in Gander as a refueling point before going on to cities like New York.
Celebrities and heads of state often spent long layovers in Gander, so the Canadian government decided to build a lounge that would impress them. When the international lounge of the Gander airport opened in 1959, the Queen of England herself came for the opening.
The international lounge, which has barely changed since it was first built, is a big, airy space with high ceilings. As you walk in, you’re awash in the orangey glow of the 1950s.
The vinyl chairs and couches are arranged in U-shaped seating areas. They were designed by famous mid-century designers Charles and Ray Eames and Robin Bush.
Even the bathrooms are their own amazing time capsule — the women’s restroom especially. There’s a row of swivel chairs in front of a counter and wall-sized mirror.
This lounge was the setting for the glory days of Gander, when anyone who was anyone seemed to stop through airport. The Beatles’ first steps on the North American continent weren’t in New York — they were in Gander, Newfoundland.
Bob Hope, Prince Philip, Marilyn Monroe and others all stopped by, and locals love to tell the story about Frank Sinatra trying to cut in line at the airport bar, and getting told to go to the back.
By the late 1960s, most commercial jets could make it across the Atlantic without needing to refuel, so stops in Gander declined. But the airport remained important, especially to communist countries that couldn’t fly to the U.S. or use its airspace. Gander was the major stopping point between Moscow and Havana. It was also a place that attracted defectors, including a fair number from Cuba.
For residents of Gander, life was also about living alongside people from all over the world who worked for the airlines. Aeroflot (the Russian airliner) alone had over 150 crew and flight planners in Gander.
The airport turned Gander into an amazingly diverse place. Beyond that, it served as a kind of portal from the town to the rest of the world. There are stories about local people with the right connections hopping on last minute flights to Cuba and Europe and New York City, just by clearing it with the captain.
And maybe it was all those trips to big cities like New York that prepared the people of Gander for September 11, 2001.
On that day, an unprecedented decision was made to close all American air space following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Hundreds of flights were diverted and forced to land at airports in Canada. As the planes came in one by one, the people of Gander gathered outside the airport to watch.
Thirty-eight planes and nearly 7000 passengers ended up landing in Gander. They called the stranded visitors the “Plane People” and they weren’t there for just a few hours — they were there for three days and they weren’t allowed to get their luggage, so they had nothing.
After each passenger registered with the Red Cross, a loose network of volunteers from Gander and nearby communities provided thousands of hot meals, toiletries, and prescriptions. Bus drivers, who were on strike, came back to work to drive them around town. It was a job Gander was built to do.
Gander had only 500 hotel rooms and 7,000 new guests, so residents stepped up and took people in. Some of the stranded passengers ended up forming strong bonds with their hosts. At least one marriage came out all of this, and many friendships. One group of “Plane People” who stayed at a high school started a scholarship program, now worth over a million dollars. There’s even a Broadway musical about Gander and the “Plane People” titled Come From Away, which is a local term for “visitors.” It started out as a student project in a dramatic arts class in a Toronto suburb, and then it just grew and grew. It was a big hit in the local theater scene, and then it went to Broadway.
These days the Gander airport is pretty quiet. St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, has the island’s major international airport now, and aside from a few daily flights, Gander’s traffic mostly consists of military planes and emergency landings.
A few years ago, the Airport Authority proposed tearing down the international lounge and building something smaller (and much, much uglier). But there was a huge outcry from architecture enthusiasts around the world, including Luke Quinton, who reported this story.
In the end, the mid-century time capsule that is the international lounge was saved. It stands as a monument to a bygone era, when flying was luxurious, when you didn’t have to take your shoes off to go through security (when, actually, there was no security as we know it). And the bar at the airport was open to anyone. If Sinatra cut in front of you in line, you’d just tell him to please wait his turn.