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gander airport trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

Pondering upon the influence of moose upon the rules of golf in Newfoundland took me all of the way to Gander and so while I was here I went to have a gander at Gander Airport.

But from my vantage point outside the terminal building (I wasn't going to pay the exorbitant parking fee to leave Casey so that I could go for a wander inside) I was quite disappointed here because I expected that given the historical significance of the airport they might have had a Hudson or a Liberator or something like that stuck up on a plinth here.

For those of you who are unaware of the significance of the airport at Gander, let us go back to the dim and dark days of 1940.

At the beginning on the war, Britain had a medium bomber called the Fairey Battle and in the German invasion of France they were deployed to attack the German armoured columns. However the "Battle" was an appallingly obsolete aircraft, underarmed and underpowered, and they were wiped out. It's quite poignant to go to some of these smaller churches all along the German invasion route into France and see a little plot in the corner of the cemetery with three Commonwealth Gravestones - pilot, navigator, air gunner, killed in May or early June 1940. Crew of a Fairey Battle. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of these all over Begium and Northern France.

And so with no medium bombers and with nothing else in the pipeline, the British were forced to look elsewhere. A Royal Air Force Purchasing Commission led by Arthur "Bomber" Harris, a War Criminal if ever there was one but let me not digress here, went over to the USA to have a mooch around the aeroplane factories to see what was available. At the Lockheed factory the Commission was shown the impressive Hudson medium bomber, and an order was placed for a pile of these.

Strange as it is to relate it, no thought had been given as to how they would send the planes over to the UK, and this led to "some discussion". The result of this was that an attempt was to be made to fly a couple of the aircraft across the Atlantic, to see if this was a feasible solution.

And in probably the most classic case of the right man being in the right place at the right time, Donald Bennett enters onto the scene of our little story. Bennett was a BOAC pilot who had flown some of the earliest commercial air traffic across the Atlantic in the late 1930s. The aeroplane that he had used on these flights had been commandeered by the military in mid-1940 so he was at a loose end, loitering around the Air Ministry trying to find some way of being useful to the War effort

The original Trans-Atlantic flights had been by Flying Boats and these landed to refuel at Botwood, just along the coast from here. But the day of the long-distance landplane was just around the corner as many people realised and so once Bennett and his colleagues had shown that commercial Transatlantic flight was feasible, Gander was chosen for the site of a major airport. It had the most decent flat surface in North America that was nearest to Europe. Here, the planes could land to refuel - a kind-of Halfway House between Western Europe and the Eastern Seaboard of the USA.

Another reason for choosing Gander is that Newfoundland is very large, it has a distinctive shape, and Gander has one of those places with a very distinctive setting on this very large, distinctively-shaped island off the coast of North America.

So if you've flown the Atlantic east to west and your navigation isn't what it should be, you could be as much as 500 miles off your course and still make a landfall at Newfoundland. You would know exactly where you were by the island's distinctive shape and so you would have no difficulty finding Gander.

Gander also has something of an element of notoriety. When the USA closed down its airspace following the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, many transatlantic jets that had been denied entry to the USA were obliged to land here. As for the passengers, they were left to fend for themselves and to rely on the charity of many of the local residents.

gander airport runway trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

In late 1940, the airport terminal did not look like it does today of course, but the runway may well have looked like this back then. This is where it all happened for Bennett and the other members of the Atlantic Ferry.

You can see what I mean about it being a large, decent flat surface though. It stretches for miles. And of course with the Hudsons, and later the Liberators, being heavily-laden with fuel for the crossing to Aldergrove in Northern Ireland, they needed all the runway they could get.

nuclear attack radar station gander trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

Now of course we all know what that round globe is, don't we? Of course you do. It's one of the top-secret anti-Soviet radar stations, just like the Fylingdale Flyer on the North Yorkshire Moors in the UK. Its one of the things that gives the 3 minute warning if the Russians decide to launch a nuclear attack on the West.

Now have you ever thought about what you would do if the 3-minute warning sounded? I know that I have. But the only issue with that is that these days I have enough trouble making it last 3 seconds, never mind 3 minutes!

So having dealt with the issues of the airport, it's time to deal with the issues of my lunch. Gander is almost exactly half-way between Deer Lake and St John's and so it's an eminently-suitable place to stop. And as a change from the usual bread and salad as I always have when I'm on the road, I have a raisin loaf that I picked up somewhere and that will go down nicely. But coffee, of which I drink far too much, has to be obtained from the local Tim Horton's.

And here, would you believe, the temperature is now a balmy 14°C and I've stripped down to my tee-shirt. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and I wasn't expecting this.

gander lake trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

And the Tim Horton's here just happens to have one of the nicest settings of any of that kind of fast-food place that I have ever encountered. The view across the road to Gander Lake is particularly stunning, especially in the gorgeous sunshine that we are having today.

Prior to the construction of the airport there wasn't really anything much in the way of settlement here. It is the lake, called Gander Lake, that gave its name to the airport and the settlement that grew up around it.

Coffee having been duly purchased, there are a couple of other things that I need to do.

Firstly, I noticed a sign telling me that there was an aeroplane museum here in Gander. That had to be well-worth a visit.

pby canso catalina gander aeroplane museum trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

As you might expect knowing the luck that I usually have, then just like the Red Bay Historic Basque Whaling Centre and the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows then this flaming place is perishing-well closed as well.

But we are treated to a collection of aircraft, such as this Canso (or Catalina, as it is known to Europeans such as Yours Truly) Flying Boat from the Forest-Firefighting Service, just like the one that I saw at St Anthony yesterday.

lockheed hudson bomber gander aircraft museum trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

And having done more than my fair share of complaining about the fact that there wasn't a Hudson or a Liberator on display at the airport, then what do I find on display here, but a Hudson.

The Museum proudly tells us that it is
"identical to the one that Bennett flew across the Atlantic from Gander on 22:33 on the night of Nov 10 1940 and landed at Aldergrove Ireland at 09:45 GMT the next morning"

But I want to take issue with that.

  1. This is a transport aeroplane and althougn Bennett in his book Pathfinder doesn't actually specify that it was a bomber that he flew, the inference all the way through his story is that he was talking of bombers and nothing else.
    Next time I'm at the Public Records Office in London I shall have to look at the movement book for Aldergrove Airport on the 11th of November 1940 and see what it was that he actually arrived in. You'd better have the Humble Pie ready.
  2. In rather startling news, Bennett didn't actually fly the Atlantic on that day.
    You might actually be wondering about how it was that the pilot received an honourable mention, but nothing at all was mentioned about the navigator. Flying the thing across the Atlantic in mid-November - the latest date that the Atlantic had been flown at the time - is of course difficult enough, but 2000 miles over the open ocean to a pinpoint landing somewhere in Northern Ireland in late 1940, that's a phenomenal piece of navigating. Without the navigator they would never ever have made it.
    The real story, according to the man himself, is that Bennett, despite being an excellent pilot who had already flown commercial flights across the Atlantic on several occasions in the late 1930s, was in fact much better known in those days as one of Britain's leading long-distance navigational experts.
    His hand was on the joystick for the take-off, that is for sure, but he then handed the controls to the second pilot while he concentrated on the navigation for the remainder of the flight.

Something else that is somehow overlooked is that Bennett and his aeroplane (and his pilot) were not alone.

Bennett was in fact leading a formation of 7 Hudsons across the Atlantic. However, about three-quarters of the way across, they encountered a severe weather front and Bennett gave the order for the aircraft to disperse and make their own way to Aldergrove. And on arriving at Aldergrove and dropping through the clouds to the airport, Bennett noted that
"another Hudson had joined the circuit just ahead of us"
thus inferring that he was not even the first of the group to arrive.

lockheed hudson bomber gander aircraft museum trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

But although it's important to set the record straight, none of the above is intended to undervalue the feat of bringing a flight of aeroplanes successfully across the Atlantic in a freezing cold November (Bennett discusses at length the icing issues that they were having).

It was a magnificent achievement, paved the way for countless other similar crossings during World War II, and gave experience and confidence to the civilian Airlines to tackle the issues of all-year-round commercial flights once peace finally broke out.

Say what you like about war, the urgent issues and desperate straits of men in wartime often pave the way for the kind of civilian benefits that would never have accrued under normal peacetime Health and Safety rules.

And a final point about this Hudson. You will recall that I was having a right old whinge about there being no memorial to the Atlantic Ferry at Gander Airport - the actual historical epicentre of the operation. Anyway, I was back here at the museum a few days later on my way back to the ferry and I talked to the curator about this. She told me that this Hudson was actually at the airport on display on a plinth, and was moved down here when the museum was opened.

So there

douglas dc3 dakota gander aircraft museum trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

This aeroplane is, I believe a Douglas DC3, or Dakota as it is better-known to the millions of people who travelled in them during World War II. But this one appears to have overshot the runway at the airport by some quite significant distance.

But if it isn't a DC3 but something else instead, please and let me know what it might be. It's always useful to have the correct information.

jet aeroplane gander aircraft museum trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

You can also to let me know what this aeroplane might be. There was a plaque at the side of it and I strolled over to have a look at it to see what it might say. But it very helpfully said "Please Keep Off"

That kind of information is of no use to anyone at all. It can't be too much of a problem surely just to put up some little sign or plaque giving some kind of details.

jet aeroplane gander aircraft museum trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

The view from the reverse angle isn't much help either. I was expecting to see some kind of signwriting on the plane but that wasn't the case. Ahh well.

If you look between the undercarriage of the aeroplane you can see Casey parked up there. And a much-cleaner Casey too from how he looked a week ago . That torrential rainstorm we had yesterday while I was at L'Anse aux Meadows did him the world of good in that respect and he's actually looking quite respectable.

lockheed hudson bomber gander aircraft museum trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

But back to the aeroplanes again and this one is also parked outside with no information around to state what it might be. It's not too dissimilar to the Hudson above although there are a few differences that make it so that I can't say with any certainty what it might be.

Despite its Royal Canadian Air Force legend, there are no roundels or anything to give it a military appearance and it looks much more like a passenger aeroplane than any kind of warplane.

lockheed hudson bomber gander aircraft museum trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

If you compare the nose of this plane to the nose of the Hudson above, you can see the similarities and you can also see the differences too. So maybe this is a Hudson modified for civilian use, or a later-model Hudson, or maybe it isn't even a Hudson at all but something else completely different.

But I do wish that these museums and places like this would actually properly label their exhibits so that the passing tourist, arriving outside the normal opening hours (and which museum in its right mind would be closed on a Sunday afternoon anyway just when families are looking to spend quality time together doing something cultural and educational?), would know what it was that he was looking at.

karrier bantam gander aircraft museum trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

But there's no need for me to guess what this vehicle might be. It's a Karrier Bantam and I know these quite well. They were what used to be the dustcards of Nantwich Rural District Council when we lived in Shavington when I was a kid.

The major question about this particular exhibit is "what on earth is it doing here in Newfoundland, of all places?". The possibility of obtaining spares over the counter for a lorry coming from an obscure and minor British manufacturer must have been about nil, and for a crucial piece of equipment such as a mobile airport passenger ladder, that would have been the primary consideration, surely?

I'd have expected to see a truck from a mainstream American manufacturer doing an important job such as this.

hydraulic controls karrier bantam gander aircraft museum trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

Anyway you can see inside the vehicle that apart from all of the usual controls and gauges for normal operation, there are the hydraulic controls to work the elevators for the stairs, to set them at the correct height for the different airliners that used Gander.

It's a pretty primitive and uncomfortable working environment, that's for sure, but we are talking about a lorry from the early 1950s and it isn't as if it has to travel very far.

But I am really surprised to see that, coming from one of the UK's minor truck manufacturer, that it is left-hand drive and not the British right-hand-drive.

hydraulic stair lift control karrier bantam gander aircraft museum trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

When transatlantic air travel took off in the late 1950s following the bringing-into-service of the new generation of jet-powered long-haul airliners it was the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC8 that had the monopoly. The shabby and disgracful tricks that the American companies played and the lengths that they went to in order to keep the British long-haul jets from American airspace don't bear recounting here - I don't have enough webspace, for a start.

And you can see that it has pre-set positions for the settings of the stairs for the 707s and DC8s. Further steps would have to be taken to provide the stairs at the right height for other aircraft, such as the Bristol Britannia - but don't get talking about this.

But I was quite excited to see this. I didn't expect to see one of these over here as a working vehicle in Newfoundland, of all places. How long is it since I've seen one of these in the UK? Ahh yes - April 2008 in Lockerbie, Scotland .

And, strangely enough it isn't. I've seen one of these a dozen times before without realising it and it wasn't until recently that it suddenly clicked.

If you are of my generation and know Hywel Bennett's avant-garde film Percy from the Swinging Sixties, look at the scene at the airport near the end of the film where the sex-change patient arrives back at Heathrow Airport after his honeymoon.

Take a close look at the steps down from the Jumbo Jet and what do you see?

control cabin douglas dc3 dakota gander aircraft museum trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

Here I am inside the cabin of a Dakota - a Douglas DC3 of course, because I'm back in Gander on my return to the western coast of Newfoundland.

In one of the moments that I have every so often, the idea of a little breaking and entering was on my mind, such as was the case at L'Anse aux Meadows but not a bit of it today because, believe it or not, just for a change the museum is actually open.

That's a first, isn't it?

control cabin douglas dc3 dakota gander aircraft museum trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

All of these controls here would give me a headache, that's for sure. Flying, like any kind of machine operation, needs to be instinctive and most people can co-ordinate the operation of a car, even in an emergency, without giving the matter any thought.

But imagine trying to do that to a set-up like this with all of these controls and switches. And this is a plane from the late 1930s too, with a comparatively-simplified system of control. A modern jetliner must be frightening.

The good news is that the woman here was helpful, a great contrast to what I had at The Rooms in St John's, a reception about which I shall rant from here to eternity . She gave me two email addresses, one from a guy in Gander who knows everything that there is to know about Gander's aviation history, and the second for another guy in St John's who undertook a considerable anount of did some research into transatlantic flights.

I was however unsuccessful in another matter of some importance. And that is that here in this museum they do not have Harry Hawker's undercarriage - that which he jettisoned upon take-off on his unsuccessful attempt to fly the Atlantic and which, according to Peter Allen, was given to a museum in St John's (although no museum in St John's that I found lays claim to its possession).

Even more strangely, here in the museum at Gander they do have a spare wing rib of the Vickers Vimy of Ballcock and Brown. So clearly some kind of thought must have been given at some time to the idea of some kind of Museum of Transatlantic Flight, but why aren't all the exhibits under the same roof?

hunter trapper rabbits gander trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

Leaving the museum and intending to cross over the road for a coffee, I noticed this gentleman at the side of the road. And in my endeavours to write an honest report about the events and occurrences that I encountered during my travels, I went over for a chat. And he had the time to spare, which I thought was very decent of him.

He's something of a hunter-trapper, so he says, and sells his wares at the side of the road like this.

strawberry moose hunter trapper rabbits gander trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

Neither myself nor Strawberry Moose had ever met a hunter-trapper before and so His Nibs also requested a photo-opportunity, as is his wont.

Being a West-European such as I am, the notion of hunter-trappers is not one that appeals all that much to me and I certainly couldn't ever see myself skinning and curing a dead rabbit, but I was interested to see what the mental outlook of the average Newfoundlander might be on that point. He said that there are many people who prefer the skinned and treated version and so he does skin and treat some rabbits himself prior to sale. In fact, in his coolboxes he had half a dozen or so of those, which he showed me.

Apparently it isn't the same today as it was in the past and there's much less of a market for the rabbits than there used to be. These days he just does it to keep himself out of mischief. He did say that there's no market at all for the pelts these days, and that destroys my myth of the Hudson's Bay Company, doesn't it?

I mentioned that there were a couple of things that I wanted to do in Gander. Well as it happens there are a few things but time is at a premium and the other things I shall have to do again next time I'm here. But the second thing that attracted my attention for today was to track down the Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in Gander. It's actually a mile out of the town on the highway east, down a dirt track that is very easy to miss if you aren't paying attention.

commonwealth war grave cemetery gander trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

Like most Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries, it is very calm and restful, a beautiful plsce to come to pay your respects.

At first glance I reckoned that there were about 100 graves here and much to my surprise I was exactly right. This is indeed the number. And you will note that the graves are grouped together. Quite often the dates on the headstones of each group are identical. Might it be that these are the crews of one particular plane, that either crashed on landing with crews tired and exhausted from the long and tiring flight from the USA, or crashed on take-off with their planes heavily overloaded with fuel for the 2000 mile flight across the Atlantic?

There are one or two groups of graves here with a day-or-two difference between the dates of death. Might it be that the graves with the earlier date are those who were killed instantly, whereas the graves with the later date are those of the same plane who succumbed to their injuries?

From what I could see, December 1942 was the heaviest month for casualties on the Atlantic Ferry.

As I mentioned, there are 100 war graves here, but only 94 of them relate to military personnel. And so I suppose that you are wondering who the other 6 might be.

In the early days at least, the Atlantic Ferry wasn't a British military operation. With the USA being neutral at the time, the Germans would have had quite something to say - and quite rightly so - about the facilities that Lockheed might have been offering to the military personnel of a belligerent power.

j b merriman boac engineer commonwealth war grave cemetery gander trans canada highway newfoundland canada october octobre 2010

The operation at the beginning was run by the Canadian Pacific Railway, and most of the personnel who organised the flights and did the recruiting and training were civilian staff on secondment from all kinds of organisations. Bennett himself was of course on secondment from BOAC - the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation, which was the British civilian long-distance airline of the era, as were many others.

And so here's an example of one of the 6 "other" graves - that of a JB Merriman, a flight engineer from the BOAC who lost his life on the Atlantic Ferry.

I mentioned too that the Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries are very calm and restful. Well, this one wasn't. Some woman brought her dog into the cemetery and let it off its lead. The first thing that the dog did was to go up to someone's gravestone and urinate on it.

Now I have very strong opinions about military personnel as you probably know, but even I was appalled by that. I went over to her and in no uncertain terms told her exactly what I thought of her and her dog, and left her in no doubt at all about my state of mind. It's a long time since I've spoken to anyone quite like that, and she quickly gathered up her dog, got herself back into her car and cleared off. It really was a shameful thing.

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