Gander: Tiny Canadian airport has outsized history

Gander sheltered 7,000 people on 9/11

By Francesca Street, CNN
Gander Airport Historical Society

Airport at Gander, Newfoundland has a rich history.

GANDER, Newfoundland - Craggy cliffs and verdant forestry, flat expanses of countryside that merge into choppy cobalt waters -- and you're as likely to spot a moose as you are another person.

Welcome to Gander in Newfoundland, Canada. It's an unlikely location for an international airport, but the northeastern tip of this rocky Canadian isle is one of the world's most significant aviation destinations.

From here, British aviators Alcock and Brown embarked on the world's first nonstop transatlantic flight and Amelia Earhart began many of her pioneering voyages.

An airport grew out of these early flight beginnings and by the mid-century swarms of people passed through Gander International Airport's hallways. Thanks to its Atlantic Ocean location between Europe and North America, the airport was the perfect refueling stop for pre-jet engine aircraft.

Gander oversaw the movement of Allied aircraft flying to Europe during World War II and later played host to airplanes from across the Soviet Union, banned from landing on American soil.

Now, Gander Airport has a starring role on New York's Broadway and in London's West End thanks to the musical "Come From Away" -- a Tony-award winning show that depicts how Gander became a place of refuge for some 7,000 displaced airplane passengers when US airspace closed on September 11, 2001.

Today, the airport is quieter than in its heyday, but with its glamorous mid-century terminal and incredible history, it's becoming a travel hotspot for aviation tourists and musical fans alike, keen to see the real location.

 

Unusual history

 

Today's busiest airports are transport hubs that serve bustling metropolises or sprawling states -- think Los Angeles International Airport or Tokyo Haneda -- these airports grew out of a demand for travel.

Gander, home today to fewer than 12,000 people, has a slightly different origin story.

Local resident Jack Pinsent, who was born during World War II and now runs Gander Airport Historical Society, tells CNN Travel that he remembers when the town didn't even exist.

His father worked at the airport, which opened in 1938, and the family lived in buildings on site.

During the war Gander became a military hub, ferrying airplanes across the Atlantic to help the war effort. In peacetime, as aviation boomed and cross-continental travel became more commonplace, Gander became a refueling stop for commercial aircraft.

The biggest airlines of the day -- such as Pan Am and BOAC (a forerunner to British Airways) -- ran regular transatlantic services via Gander. Soon the airport was handling 13,000 aircraft annually and a quarter of a million passengers.

In the late 1950s, the town of Gander grew around the airport to accommodate the growing numbers of workers. Aviation was in the town's DNA from the beginning -- streets were named after famous aviators such as Charles Lindbergh and almost all the residents has some link to the transport hub.

The airport terminal, however, hadn't changed much since its early military days.

"For a lot of people, this was the first and only place they would land in Canada," says Pinsent. "The Canadian government decided that we weren't leaving a good impression of the country when they walk into an old World War II hangar -- and so they decided they would build a new terminal, but they would do it very artistically."

The Queen herself flew to Gander to open the modernist, swish new lounge, the epitome of mid-century chic with furniture by acclaimed designers including Charles and Ray Eames, and Jacques Guillon.

It cost an incredible $3 million to build.

A striking mural adorned the terminal walls, abstract and colorful and entitled "Flight and its Allegories", by Canadian artist Kenneth Lochhead.

The airplanes continued to flock to Gander -- the first time The Beatles' touched down on North American soil, it was in Newfoundland, not New York -- and everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Fidel Castro passed through the airport's modernist halls.

 

Changing times

 

The jet engine revolutionized travel. Suddenly, refueling wasn't necessary and air routes bypassed Gander and headed straight for the US.

In the latter half of the 20th century, however, the airport remained busy.

By then, Pinsent was working as an air traffic controller, a time he remembers fondly.

"It was a great atmosphere as far as morale was concerned, everybody was dedicated to providing a service -- because that was the key to it all, if you didn't provide a service, then the airport would have fallen apart," he recalls.

Airplanes from Eastern Europe continued to land in Gander, often before heading down to Cuba.

"We have the East German airlines, we had Cuban Airlines, Czechoslovakian airlines, the Soviet Union's airlines... We were sort of like a base for Communist Europe."

But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, times were changing. By the new millennium, Gander had fallen off the radar -- and few people would be able to point out the town on a world map.

 

'The plane people'

 

Gander resident Claude Elliott was mayor of the town from 1996 to 2017.

On September 11, 2001 his day started, he tells CNN Travel, the same as any -- he headed out for his morning coffee.

Within hours, the world was shaken to its core by the terrorist attacks in the United States.

Global air traffic ground to a halt. Airplanes headed into US airspace were canceled. Those mid-air were rerouted.

Texan native Kevin Tuerff was on board an Air France flight from Paris to New York, with his then-boyfriend, also called Kevin.

Their story is one of many dramatized in the Broadway show.

"There's a line in 'Come from Away' that says: 'I fly a lot, and a sudden drop in elevation and a sharp turn -- I know that's not normal.' And that's exactly words taken from an interview I did with the writers of the musical," Tuerff tells CNN Travel.

Shortly after making this change in direction, the pilot announced over the intercom, first in French and then in English, that there had been a terrorist attack in the United States and the aircraft would land in Gander.

"He might as well have said Swahili," Tuerff says. "I didn't know where we were. I didn't know the difference between Newfoundland and Greenland and Iceland."

Tuerff's flight was one of 38 airplanes heading to the US that landed in Gander, grounding 7,000 people on the airport's vast, previously empty runways.

There they sat, unmoving, for hours as authorities ascertained what was going on and how to tackle the security threat.

It was quickly apparent that the planes wouldn't be budging for some time.

Meanwhile, Mayor Elliott and the people of Gander began to frantically prepare food, shelter and hospitality for the displaced people about to descend on their town.

Tuerff had recently bought a digital video camera. He had it with him on board, and switched it on to document what was happening as he and his fellow passengers sat on the airplane.

"I turned on the camera and said "Take a gander at Gander, we've just heard the news about the terrible news in the United States, but we're safe here,'" he recalls.

No one had Internet on their cell phones, no one had international coverage. They were learning what had happened through hearsay, and they had no way of communicating with their friends and family.

The air stewards had to keep the peace on board offering free alcohol and food. On some airplanes, the atmosphere was jovial as people decided the only way to cope was to drink and stay upbeat. Others panicked.

Eventually, they departed the airplane.

"After we'd been drinking all day, I got down on the runway and took a video said: 'Thank God, we're off that bloody plane. But we don't know where we're going,'" says Teurff.

"We were exhausted. But after we got through security, it was as if we walked into a surprise party, there were hundreds of people inside with food set up on tables. Everywhere you can imagine, people just offering you food and drink."

And so began one of the unlikeliest and most heartwarming stories to come out of this dark period of recent history.

 

Incredible welcome

 

Tuerff and the other thousands of displaced air travelers were welcomed with open arms by the residents of Gander, invited into their homes, clothed, fed and looked after.

It's this story that's dramatized in "Come From Away" and Tuerff -- who spoke extensively with the writers about his experiences, as well as passing on his video footage -- says his overwhelming takeaway from the experience was "mindblowing compassion."

"People, foreigners from 90 countries, strangers -- and potentially other terrorists -- and they didn't have to let us in. But they did."

The diversion of commercial aircraft to Canada during 9/11 was dubbed Operation Yellow Ribbon. Aircraft also ended up in military and civilian airports across Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and British Colombia.

"What was unique [about Gander] was the proportion of the people that live there to the number of temporary refugees that they'd taken in," says Teurff.

The population of the town almost doubled over the several days.

"So from my perspective, it appeared that there wasn't a single person in this town that wasn't helping out," adds Teurff. "So that's what makes this particularly area of Central Newfoundland unique."

Elliott says that, as mayor, the decision to welcome the displaced people with open arms went without saying. It's just about human decency -- and that's the message he wants audiences of "Come From Away" to take home.

Both he and Teurff says it's surreal to see actors play them on stage, but incredible to see the story's message of hope and compassion go global.

In "Come From Away" a cast of 12 play multiple roles -- from the Gander residents including Elliott, to the "plane people"-- as they were nicknamed, including Kevin T., Tuerff's "doppelganger", as he calls him.

As the actors seamlessly switch character simply by adding a piece of clothing and changing their accent, the multiple role-playing only enhances the show's message of universal humanity.

Tuerff has returned to Gander a few times -- first, he says, for the 10th anniversary. It was then that he met the show's Toronto-based husband-and-wife writer team, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who were developing the book, music and lyrics.

Later, Tuerff returned with the show in 2016, as things came full circle.

He never stays in a hotel, he says. He's always invited to stay at the family home of the former administrator of Gander's Community College, Mac Moss, who he met that week in 2001.

"They basically adopted me as their adult son they never had," he says.

On his most recent visit to Gander, Tuerff -- who also wrote a book about his experiences -- met some Syrian refugee families who'd recently been taken in by the Gander community.

That shows that Gander's welcoming spirit of tolerance remains intact, says Tuerff.

Tuerff has carried the experience into his own life -- each year on September 11, he commemorates his Gander experience by closing shop on his New York City office for the day and giving his employees a $100 bill, encouraging them to put it towards a good deed for a stranger.

 

Tourism growth

 

The global success of the show -- which premieres in Melbourne, Australia this week -- has had other effects. Namely, Gander is back on the tourism map.

Elliott says people want to see the airport, see the beauty of Newfoundland which is evoked via the show's Celtic-influenced songbook -- but most of all, he says, they want to meet the people.

"There is an enormous amount of beauty, in Newfoundland," agrees Tuerff.

But Gander Airport continues to struggle to find a role in a changing aviation landscape -- and Pinsett, who collects images of the airport's past for the Historical Society, says he worries about the airport's future:

"The best way I can describe it is that they're struggling," he says, suggesting that becoming an aircraft maintenance hub could be one option for Gander.

The airport now sees more business and private jets than commercial aircraft.

The 1950s terminal, once the epitome of chic, is still a draw -- remaining virtually unchanged and a window back to a "Mad-Men"-esque era.

"Everybody comes to Gander and wants to go to the airport, look at the terminal," says Pinsett.

Still, the airport is playing a starring role on Broadway -- and now Hollywood is calling.

The writers of the musical have signed a movie deal to bring "Come From Away" to the big screen and filming will take place at the airport.

Gander's history is a series of unlikely occurrences -- and its latest iteration only sets it apart once more, celebrating Gander Airport as a place where people came together on one of humanity's darkest days to find commonality, support and hope.

"I don't think there's too many airports in the world that they made a Broadway play about," says Pinsett.

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