Gander International Airport

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Off the east coast of mainland Canada is the island of Newfoundland. The island is as far east as you can go and still be in Canada. So far east, in fact, that it has its own timezone: a half an hour later than anywhere else in North America.

Roman Mars:
If you’ve seen a photograph of the island, it’s probably the one that went viral last year of a small village on the eastern coast. In the foreground are rolling hills and a couple of houses. In the background, a gigantic iceberg floats by on the choppy blue sea.

Luke Quinton:
Yeah, icebergs float by occasionally, but that one was actually scary big. And nice pronunciation of Newfoundland, by the way. A lot of people say “New-fin-land”, and it’s a bit of a sore spot with us locals.

Roman Mars:
That is Newfoundland native Luke Quinton.

Luke Quinton:
And I want to take us to a different part of the island: to a little town on the northeastern side called Gander.

Ian Blackmore:
Looking back, I was all of 20 years old at the time, though I thought I was ancient.

Luke Quinton:
It’s Christmas Eve, 1972, and Ian Blackmore is working.

Ian Blackmore:
My name is Ian Blackmore, and I was a photographer with the Gander Beacon after I finished high school and before I went to college in Toronto.

Luke Quinton:
Ian’s coworker Gerald Volkey was an editor on the same local paper. He’s going to help tell this story.

Gerald Vokey:
It was Christmas Eve, and their mother was getting things ready for Santa Claus.

Luke Quinton:
Gerald was home that day in 1972. His family was getting ready for Christmas, and he wanted to get his daughter out of the house. So, they decided to go hang out at the local airport.

Roman Mars:
As you do.

Luke Quinton:
As you do when you live in a tiny town in Canada, and the airport is the best thing around.

Luke Quinton:
Also, this is not a normal airport. But we’ll get to that soon.

Ian Blackmore:
You never knew with the airport being up there, who might come through at any given time, regardless of the hour of the day, or night, or whatever.

Luke Quinton:
And when Gerald got to the Gander Airport, he started asking around.

Gerald Vokey:
I asked at the security there what was going on, and they said that Fidel Castro is here. And I said, “What?”

Roman Mars:
Fidel Castro was there at the airport, and he was more or less just hanging out.

Gerald Vokey:
I had dinner with him.

Luke Quinton:
Did you?

Gerald Vokey:
Yeah, in the … Well, the dining room, naturally.

Ian Blackmore:
He had on his traditional fatigues and his combat boots.

Luke Quinton:
Green?

Ian Blackmore:
Green fatigues. No metals or nothing. Just a plain uniform.

Luke Quinton:
It turned out Castro had a pretty long layover in Gander, so at some point he basically says, “Give me a tour of your town.”

Gerald Vokey:
He wanted to see the town.

Roman Mars:
So, Ian, and Gerald, and Fidel Castro all piled in some cars, and go driving around the little town until they come across a kid sledding.

Gerald Vokey:
There was a young fellow with his dog, and probably another friend there; and they were taking turns going down on their toboggan. Of course, Mr. Castro decided that that looked interesting, and figured he might see what the thing was and how it worked. Not being that familiar with snow.

Luke Quinton:
Castro gets on the sled and starts down the hill. Ian Blackmore snaps a picture.

Ian Blackmore:
I got ahead of him, before he started on the slide down, so I was in position to catch him on his way down. Well, photograph him, I didn’t catch him.

Roman Mars:
Ian Blackmore’s photograph of Fidel Castro sledding would end up in Time Magazine.

Luke Quinton:
And the amazing thing about this anecdote isn’t how unique it was for Gander but how totally normal. The Gander Airport was used to hosting really famous people from all over the world. It wasn’t just some tiny airport in some tiny town.

Roman Mars:
It was a very large, very important airport in some tiny town.

Luke Quinton:
But before we hear how this place came to be, I want to take you inside the airport. Because it’s an incredible building.

Jerry Cramm:
Okay we’re here in the Gander Airport

Roman Mars:
The Gander Airport is such a Mid-Century Modern time capsule that I actually think I have to bring up some lounge music right now. This place is straight out of an episode of “Mad Men”. You know, “Mad Men” with Newfoundlander accents.

Jerry Cramm:
If you follow me across here, over on the….

Luke Quinton:
Jerry Cramm is a commissionaire at the Gander Airport. The job is part fixer, part security guard. Jerry will probably be the one to give you a tour if you ask.

Jerry Cramm:
The terrace flooring is all from Italy. Right here is what we call the “Birds of Welcome”.

Luke Quinton:
Jerry is pointing at a bronze sculpture of seven birds that greets you when you walk into the lounge.

Jerry Cramm:
The blue and gray furniture is all from the late 50s, early 60s.

Luke Quinton:
The International Lounge of the Gander Airport is this big, airy space. Super high ceilings. When you walk in, you’re immediately awash in the orangy glow of the 1950s. The vinyl chairs and couches are arranged in U-shaped seating areas. They were designed by famous Mid-Century designers like Charles and Ray Eames and Robin Bush.

Roman Mars:
The Gander International Lounge has been called the single most important Modernist room in Canada.

Luke Quinton:
Even the bathrooms are their own amazing time capsule. The women’s restroom especially. Jerry calls out a warning so that we can go in.

Jerry Cramm:
Males, girls! I think we’re good to go.

Luke Quinton:
This is not a gross, airport bathroom. It’s beautiful, Mid-Century luxury. There’s a row of swivel chairs in front of a counter and a wall-sized mirror. It has two showers because, yes, people use the shower at the airport.

Jerry Cramm:
There is two showers in this room, as well as in the men’s. But now you can say you were in the washroom that the Queen powdered her nose in on June the 19th, 1959.

Roman Mars:
When this International Lounge at the Gander Airport opened in 1959, the Queen of England herself came for the opening. And yeah, the townspeople hobnobbed with her too.

Luke Quinton:
A lot has happened in this airport. And the story of how it came to be and what it’s become is really also a story about the history of air travel.

Archive Tape:
Find Newfoundland? It goes the shortest way. Come here, let me show you. You’ve got to look at it on a globe. If you trace a direct course from New York to Paris, you’ll see that it takes you right over Newfoundland. Remember, Lindbergh went this way and he didn’t have any gas to spare.

Roman Mars:
In the 1920s, before Gander existed, Newfoundland’s grassy lands were the jumping-off points for Trans-Atlantic daredevil pilots. Amelia Earhart, Alcock and Brown, Lindbergh, all of them. Because it was so far east, it made sense to start there if you were worried about getting across the Atlantic with enough fuel. Eventually, the British government, which controlled Newfoundland at the time, started to take note. Maybe there was something to this whole air travel thing.

Luke Quinton:
In 1936, the British chose what was then basically a patch of woods on the eastern side of Newfoundland as the site for over a million square yards of runways.

Roman Mars:
By the spring of 1938, the Gander Airport was fully operational but the massive runways were mostly unused. There just weren’t enough planes in operation that could actually survive the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a very, very risky journey. In the two decades before the war, only 100 planes had crossed the Atlantic. Fifty others had tried and failed. Forty people had died.

Luke Quinton:
Then, in 1939, World War II began in Europe and Allied forces wanted as many fighter planes as they could get their hands on.

Roman Mars:
Americans and Canadians had been shipping planes over by boat but that wasn’t working out so well.

Dean Cull:
They were being torpedoed by German submarines and whatnot. So we were losing more airplanes than were actually making it over to the UK.

Luke Quinton:
That’s historian and former air dispatcher, Dean Cull. He says to get planes to the UK, the British had to come up with a new idea.

Dean Cull:
They would have to put what we call a bladder inside. It was a spare fuel tank, basically, to give them enough fuel to make the crossing.

Roman Mars:
The process of flying the planes from Gander to Scotland began in 1940 and was called the “Ferry Command”.

Luke Quinton:
The first crossing was seven planes and it took place on a freezing night in November. The pilots had to fly in the dark because lights could alert the Germans. Miraculously, all seven made it.

Roman Mars:
But that was just the first day. Over the course of the war, 20,000 planes were brought to Gander to be flown across the Atlantic for the war.

Dean Cull:
Some days, there would be 100 airplanes that would go over. Churchill was even quoted at one point, he referred to Gander as the largest aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic. I guess it was the turning point of the war really for Britain.

Luke Quinton:
Gander was making history, even though at the time there was no actual town of Gander.

Frank Tibbo:
There was no town. There were people living between intersections of runways and that’s where the Americans and Canadians and the British had built wartime buildings.

Luke Quinton:
Frank Tibbo is a former air traffic controller at Gander and historian of the airport. He says the early town of Gander was basically just a few living quarters, right next to the runways.

Frank Tibbo:
I would say 100 yards or so, or even closer than that. And they made a hell of a lot of noise, those aircraft.

Roman Mars:
Because the Gander Airport started as a military operation, it wasn’t until the war was over and civilian air travel began that they decided to build a separate town, away from the runways.

Luke Quinton:
And then in the late 1950s, the Canadian government built that fancy International Lounge at the airport.

Roman Mars:
In 1958, just a year before the new lounge opened, jets like the de Havilland Comet and the DC-8 were introduced. These planes could make the long trek across the Atlantic without having to stop and refuel in Gander. But they took a while to go mainstream, and, for years, Gander served as a stopping place for international travel.

Luke Quinton:
These are the glory days of Gander. When celebrities from all over the world would wind up stopping through on their way to or from the States. The Beatles’ first step in North America wasn’t in New York, it was in Gender, Newfoundland.

Roman Mars:
The Gander Airport became, by far, the hottest place to be in Gander.

John Baird:
Oh yeah, we used to go up and hang around up there and watch the people coming in on the planes and who’s there and ride on the escalator. It was a hotspot for fun.

Luke Quinton:
John Baird grew up in Gander.

John Baird:
You know, everything revolved around the airport. I mean, that was (…inaudible). It’s a lot quieter a place now than it was then.

Roman Mars:
In the 1960s, air travel was still pretty exclusive. A lot of North American tourists still traveled to Europe by ship.

Luke Quinton:
But celebrities and heads of state from all over the world were paying big bucks to fly. And many of them were stopping in Gander, in that beautiful Mid-Century Modern lounge.

Roman Mars:
A lot of famous people who came through the Gander Airport tried to go unnoticed. But some really wanted a cocktail from the bar and if they were in the airport bar, they probably were interacting with the people of Gander. Security was pretty loose back then, to say the least.

Gerald Vokey:
I met Marilyn Monroe.

Luke Quinton:
What was that like?

Gerald Vokey:
I like to do it again.

Dean Cull:
Bob Hope and kings and queens of various countries, King of Jordan, King of Saudi Arabia, Michel Gorbachev.

Gerald Vokey:
Macho Man, Randy Savage

Claude Elliott:
I met President Bush

Luke Quinton:
That’s the former mayor of Gander, Claude Elliott.

Claude Elliott:
I met the Queen of England. I flew with Prince Phillip on his chopper.

Luke Quinton:
The locals also love to tell a story about Frank Sinatra trying to cut in line at the airport bar and getting told to go to the back. But as time went on, the lounge wasn’t just a scene of people drinking cocktails on their way to London.

Roman Mars:
By the late 1960s, most commercial jets could make it across the Atlantic without needing to refuel. But Gander was still serving an important role in international travel, especially to Communist countries who couldn’t fly to the U.S. or use its airspace. Gander was the major stopping point between Moscow and Havana. But this occasionally invited defectors seeking asylum in Canada.

Gary Volkey:
And in particular, there was a fair number from Cuba

Luke Quinton:
That’s Gary Volkey, Gerald Volkey’s son and he says sometimes people would get off their plane, coming from Cuba or Bulgaria or some other Communist country, and seek asylum. Not that this was easy. Volkey remembers witnessing one incident in particular in which a woman from a Cuban flight attempted to escape down the lounge escalator to Canadian authorities while the Cuban flight crew tried to stop her.

Gary Volkey:
They had the lady hold by her feet. The Canadians had her hold by her head and her arms so she was upside down, going up the escalator. And she had a dress on, her dress was back over her head. It nearly turned violent. It was, for me, even as a kid, it was one of the most uncanny things I’ve ever seen.

Luke Quinton:
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, had over 150 crew and flight planners in Gander alone.

Gary Volkey:
Gander, in its day, was a lot more multicultural than probably some of the bigger cities in Canada. The Brits had people there, the Germans had people there. There was Canadian military.

Luke Quinton:
Cubans and Russians

Gary Volkey:
Cubans and Russians. Everybody mingled.

Claude Elliott:
In particular, the Cubans were famous for buying bicycles and shipping them back to Cuba.

Roman Mars:
The airport turned Gander into an amazingly diverse place. And beyond that, it was a portal from the town to the rest of the world. There are stories about local people with the right connections hopping on last minutes flights to Cuba and Europe and New York City, just by clearing it with the captain.

Luke Quinton:
And maybe it was all those trips to New York that prepared the people of Gander for September 11, 2001.

News Anchor:
As Magus mentioned, we have a breaking news story to tell you about apparently a plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center here in New York City. It happened just a few moments ago, apparently. We have very little…

Luke Quinton:
Stephanie, my wife, said… She had the news on in the morning and she said it looks like an airplane crashed into one of the buildings in New York.

Roman Mars:
On the morning of September 11th, an unprecedented decision was made to close all American airspace. Hundreds of flights were diverted to land at airports in Canada.

Frank Tibbo:
I was only home about ten minutes when the town manager called me and said that “you better come in, we may be getting some planes.”

Roman Mars:
As the planes came in one by one, the people of Gander gathered outside the airport to watch.

Dean Cull:
Well, it was quite remarkable really because you would see airplanes, aircraft lights, miles and miles and miles and miles in the distance, all lined up to land. So it was quite a remarkable scene.

Roman Mars:
38 planes and nearly 7,000 passengers ended up in Gander. They called the stranded visitors the “Plane People.” But the Plane People weren’t there just for a few hours, they were there for three days and they had nothing. The passengers weren’t allowed to take their luggage so they had arrived in Gander with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Luke Quinton:
After each passenger was registered with the Red Cross, a loose network of volunteers from Gander and nearby communities provided thousands of hot meals, toiletries, and prescriptions to the Plane People. Bus drivers who were on strike came back to work, to drive them around town. It was a job Gander was born to do.

Gerald Vokey:
And our job here, our people came through and said, ‘We’re here. We’re here to help you until you’re ready to leave.”

Roman Mars:
Gander had 500 hotel rooms and 7,000 new guests. The population of the little town had nearly doubled overnight. So the residents stepped up and took people in.

Gerald Vokey:
And yes there was people who took people into their homes even though we were told not to do that because, at that time, they didn’t know how widespread that this terrorist attack would be.

Luke Quinton:
So this is a foolish question, did they have enough food?

Gerald Vokey:
Oh god yes, nobody runs out of food in Newfoundland.

Roman Mars:
Some of the stranded passengers ended up forming strong bonds with their hosts. At least one marriage is reported to have come out of all this and a bunch of friendships. One group of Plane People who stayed at a high school started a scholarship for it that’s now worth over a million dollars. The passengers organized all this on their flight home after they finally got cleared to leave Gander.

Gerald Vokey:
Even today we still have people come back, visit people in peoples’ homes that stayed there. We have people in Gander that go to the U.S.

Roman Mars:
This 9/11 story is sort of famous because the Broadway musical, “Come from Away”, in which the Gander mayor, Claude Elliot is a central character.

Claude Elliott:
And there’s just five or six of us in the community that’s portrayed in that play. But we represent this whole community.

Luke Quinton:
Is it a good likeness, or?

Claude Elliott:
Well, he’s not like me, I mean, I’m beautiful-looking. (laughter) It’s not like me. But for an American, he’s done a pretty good job trying to imitate a Newfoundlander. (clip from “Come from Away” plays)

Roman Mars:
These days the Gander Airport is pretty quiet.

Luke Quinton:
Do people… it’s never quite as packed I guess as it once was.

Jerry Cramm:
Nope

Roman Mars:
That’s Luke and Jerry Cram, inside the airport.

Jerry Cramm:
We still get international traffic today but nowhere near the extent. Before they had to stop somewhere to refuel but now you’ve got the planes that can go on without having to stop.

Roman Mars:
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 is mostly military traffic and emergency landings. But between the military base, the air traffic control center, and the airport, Gander has found ways to stay afloat.

Luke Quinton:
A few years ago, the airport authority was thinking of 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. Full disclosure, I was one of them.

Roman Mars:
In the end, thanks to organizing by people like Luke, the Mid-Century time capsule that is the International Lounge was saved and Jerry Cramm promises it will stay that way.

Luke Quinton:
Mark your words.

Jerry Cramm:
Mark my words. But I’m not always going to be around either.

Roman Mars:
And so, as long as Jerry Cramm is around, the International Lounge stands as a kind of 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 such thing as security. When the bar in your airport terminal was open to anyone, ticket or not. And if Sinatra cut in front of you, you just tell him, “Please, wait your turn.”

Credits

Production

Producer Luke Quinton spoke with Ian Blackmore, photographer at the Gander Beacon; Gerald Vokey was an editor on the same local paper; Jerry Cramm, commissionaire at the Gander airport; historian and former air dispatcher Dean Cull; Frank Tibbo, former air traffic controller at Gander and historian of the airport; John Baird, who grew up in Gander; former mayor of Gander, Claude Elliott; and Gary Volkey, Gerald Vokey’s son. Special thanks to the Gander Airport Historical Society — you can read and see more about the town and airport’s history on their website. Coda on airport runway numbering with Kurt Kohlstedt.

Comments (23)

Share

  1. Bryan

    “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).”

    We still don’t have to take our shoes off at security in Canadian airports, so at least we still have that last vestige of the bygone era!

  2. Pat Thompson

    The Gander airport reminds me of the Narita Airport Rest House located next to Tokyo’s Narita airport. The hotel is in mint condition 1960’s. Everything from the carpet and furniture to the hotels restaurant the Rainbow Room. Pictures do not do it justice, just Google it and you’ll see. It felt like staying in the hotel from the Shining.

  3. Matt Rettig

    Re: runway numbering. There’s actually a significant design issue in painting not only the runways but the taxiways as well. Sometimes runways are parallel, which works fine as Kurt described. But sometimes two runways may begin from approximately the same spot but their headings are maybe 20 or 30 degrees off from one another and they diverge. So as you’re taxiing along to the end of the runway(s), you may actually line up on the wrong one. Confusion about which runway you’re on can lead to catastrophe. Maybe another airplane is taxiing across the runway you’re taking off from because it thinks you’re actually taking off from the other one. Or, as happened tragically in 2006 in Lexington KY, maybe one runway is much shorter than the other, so an airplane trying to take off from the wrong runway simply doesn’t have enough pavement to accelerate and get airborne.

    Since the Lexington accident, designers have tried to a number of combos of paint, signage, lighting and cockpit procedural changes to get us pilots to make super-sure we’re lining up on the correct runway for takeoff, and I believe they have helped. Certain tricky intersections remain a challenge, but this is another example of good design making a positive impact on all of us.

  4. Matthew Seymour

    As a 99PI fan I loved everything about this story, thank you!

    As a pilot the bonus segment drove me a bit crazy. Every time I hear a mainstream news source that mentions runways, the same mistake is made. There is no, and there never has been, a runway “eighteen.” It is runway “one-eight.” Additionally, the L, R, or C is pronounced “Left, Right, and Center” respectively, rather than pronouncing the letter itself.

    A minor point, but on a show all about the small but important design decisions in the world, it is a small and important design decision. In aviation the individual numbers of any compass heading are pronounced individually. For example a compass heading of 270 is “two-seven-zero” not “two-seventy.” Especially in the early days of radio communications, and even today, reception is not always great, and pronouncing each number individually helps to avoid ambiguity that can lead to errors.

    This goes a step further as 3, 4, and 5 can be confused for each other if the reception is weak. Technically, 3 should be pronounced “tree,” and 5 should be pronounced “fife,” to avoid this confusion. Although this rule has largely been dropped due to better radio equipment these days, you will still hear 9 pronounced “niner” all over the world.

    All because some smart person in the 1930’s made a smart design decision.

    1. 99pi

      Sorry for any confusion: we were referring to the numbers not as they are spoken but as they are written (on signs and runways). If you check out the related article (embedded at the end of this piece) we do spell out more clearly (no pun intended) how it works when numbers/letters are being read aloud in actual navigational situations.

  5. Jesse O.

    In the episode, the queen was referred to as the “Queen of England”. She’s Queen of Canada as well, and it’s a bit odd to refer to her as the “Queen of England” in the context of a visit to Canada.

    1. Rob

      Quite. And “Queen of England” isn’t even one of her titles anyway.

  6. Pavel Supruniuk

    I’ve been to this airport in 1987 when my family was returning from my father’s service in Cuba back to the U.S.S.R. We were killing several hours in this hall https://cl.ly/3C0h1v1q2C3S waiting for airplane to refuel.

    I knew I was in Canada (because I still have somewhere a Maple leaf pin), but I didn’t know it was Newfoundland.

    Thanks for the show!

  7. David

    Looking forward to listening to this episode. As a Canadian Army Brat this airport was stopping point before we headed to our postings in Germany. Fond memories

  8. Oliver Pemberton

    Great story as always, thank you. In 1990 I was required to fly from the UK to Cuba for a work project, and ended up taking the once-a-week flight on Air Cubana on a Russian Ilyushin Il-62 from Paris Orly airport to Havana. We made a pit stop on the way which I later found out was Gander. I don’t remember going into that wonderful terminal but I suppose we must have. On the return trip we did not need to stop there, maybe it’s to do with the winds.

  9. amy

    Dang! your show was 9 months too late! We were in Newfoundland as part of a tour of the Atlantic Provinces and drove from St. Johns to Gros Morne Natiional Park. Had I heard this podcast before we went we would have stopped to see the airport. Loved Newfoundland although I had to abstain from French fried potatoes for several days after eating them for the whole week. We met lots of very nice people and saw some great sights from fossils to the mantle of the earth to the viking site. A week was too short,

  10. Rob

    An obvious mistake, but I’ll point it out anyway, since it hasn’t been corrected after a few days: time in Newfoundland is earlier than anywhere else in North America, not later.

    1. Carl

      I noticed this, too… but “later” is correct in a sense. If it’s noon in the Eastern time zone, one PM in Atlantic, and 1:30 in Newfoundland, doesn’t that make it “later” there than anywhere else on the continent — even if the time of 1:30 occurred “earlier” there than anywhere else?

    2. Rob

      OK, that’s a very good point. So I withdraw my criticism! Though I think the more conventional way to describe this would be to say that time in Newfoundland is “ahead” of anywhere else in North America.

    3. Alex P

      @Rob nono please don’t withdraw your criticism! Nobody says a place is “later” than other places because its clocks are “later in the day”. Most people call that “earlier” because it arrives at a particular time “eparlier”. Just ask any Aussie or Kiwi and they will never tell you they are “later” than the whole world :)

    4. Alex P

      No Rob, don’t withdraw your criticism! Ask any Aussie or Kiwi if they consider themselves “later” than the whole world…

  11. Jim

    Great episode and nice pronunciation of Newfoundland! Nice to hear an American use the correct pronunciation when many Canadians still can’t get it right. As someone who grew up in the area I never truly appreciated the uniqueness of the Gander airport until now!

  12. Derek

    I’m in love with the midcentury furniture! It feels like something out of Mad Men or a Wes Anderson film. Great story !

  13. NJ

    My daughter seems to think there was a song in the 70’s called ” Gander Airport” but we can’t seem to come up with anything….can anyone help.
    Thanks
    NJ

    1. Lynn Torraville

      Is she thinking of the song “L.A. International Airport” by Susan Raye?

  14. The map showing the ferry routes is incorrect. The first and for a long time the most important went directly from Gander to the UK. Ironically it is not shown in a article about Gander.

  15. Robert Pelley

    If you really want to know Gander’s about history starting from the first site survey and construction, you might want to google “bobsganderhistory”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist