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Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement July 27, 1977.

 

 Cecil Edison

The first inaugural flight, refueling by dog sled and a case of sabotage.  These are some of the memories of Cecil Edison who first saw Gander as Camp 34 in 1938.

 Mr. Edison was working at Botwood with Shell Oil, the company that was refueling the few planes that were flying at the time.  The company was owned by Royal Dutch Shell and governed by a Newfoundland agency, Asiatic Petroleum Co. and most of the flights were either to take weather observations or of an experimental nature, to see if a passenger service could be operated across the Atlantic.

 Then within one week everything broke loose in the aviation business.  Imperial Airlines (later B.O.A.C.) began their inaugural flights of Sutherlands from Foyne, Ireland to Baltimore, Maryland.  The first scheduled flights were made up of four aircraft, the Caledonia, the Cambridge, the Clyde and the Clara.  Export Airlines (A.O.A.) started within the same week with their run of PBY’s, (flying boats).  All of these aircraft were seaplanes and they were refueled from the barge, the “Oscar” was christened by John Paul Getty, one of the richest men in the world, and a major shareholder in Royal Dutch Shell.

 The Arrow, a land based plane, flew out of Gander, but it couldn’t carry enough fuel to make it to Ireland so it was refueled in the air.  It used up a lot of fuel just getting off the ground so another aircraft would go up and lower a steel cable with a round ball on the end to the cruising Arrow.  This would fit into the tanks and the refueling would take place.  They even tried lifting a Mercury aircraft piggyback on another plane to save the fuel needed for takeout but this was only tried once.  Once the aircraft was in the air it was strictly on its own.  They were given a weather report and headed west to fly the Great Northern Circle route to Shannon.  There was no radio communications enroute and the air traffic control centres had not been started so they took advantage of the winds to save fuel and followed the compass to their destination.

It was sometimes a tricky business to refuel the aircraft from the barge because the barge would move with the tide but the plane would go with the wind so it had to be tied down in three places.  Two lines from the wings or the floats and one from the nose.

Security was unheard of.  Even when Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt flew on their way to Placentia for the signing of the Atlantic Charter, the main means of security was not to tell anyone they were coming.

Air France flew one flight through Botwood two days before the Second World War broke out in 1939.  It was the only flight air France ever put through there.  The command was Lieutenant Ville de Paris.  They took the largest load of fuel for one aircraft ever to go out of Botwood, three thousand and eighty pounds and they were in a great hurry to get loaded and gone. 

That year a barge was taken from Gander Lake, loaded on a flatcar and hauled to St. George’s Bay.  Plans were being made for the landing of overseas flights there and offloading the passengers at Stephenville.  Stephenville was already an established base and the military there were equipped to handle the passengers that would be brought by small boat from the moored plane.  The barge was called the “Leaping Lena” and it was set in place in preparation for establishing the Trans Atlantic stopovers. 

By this time, the authorities were becoming concerned about security and they weren’t too happy about civilians embarking at the military base.  Planes such as the Liberator could land at Gander by this time so the decision was changed and Gander, instead of Stephenville, was chosen to be the main refueling and takeoff point for the Atlantic crossings.  Gander had been planned as far back as 1936 to be a civilian depot, while Stephenville was strictly a military base and that was the way the Americans wanted it to stay.

But for this last minute decision, there would have been no Gander Airport.

 Up until this time, Mr. Edison had been stationed at Botwood from June ‘til October and the rest of the year he would spend at Gander.  All the planes at Gander were land based and the fuel would be brought from Lewisporte where it was offloaded from tankers to Gander by rail.  At first the fuel would come in drums and it would be stored in overhead tanks to be run into the planes by gravity.  Later the underground storage tanks were built.

 The company was was still governed by the Shell Head Office in New York and the employees were paid in pounds, shillings and pence which was then converted to  dollars - the currency used on the base.  Shell had started at Botwood and in a letter dated 1940, Mr. R.A. Mayden, President of the Company, said “It was the only business started in Newfoundland and run by 100 percent Newfoundlanders.”

The first airplane every refueled at Gander was flown by Douglas Fraser for whom Fraser Mall was named and co-pilot, Angus Steele.  Captain Fraser was flying for the purpose of taking weather observations, and, at the time, there were no ground facilities established here.  So a Newfoundland dog was hitched to a sled and the actual refueling was done with hand pumps.

There was one case of sabotage but the men at Gander picked it up.  In order to refuel the cabin tanks of the B-25’s, it was necessary to crawl over the pilot’s seat to get at them.  They had been losing a lot of B-25’s in mid-flight and no one seemed to know why.  After the plane had flown for awhile the fuel in the wing tanks would be all used and the captain would then switch to the bomb bay or cabin tanks for the last leg home.  This usually occurred in mid-ocean.  This particular day, Edsel Langdon and Pierce Bartlett had to leave the cabin because the fumes were coming back from the fuel pipe instead of going out the vent pipe and found that a cork plug had been inserted into it.  The plane showed no signs of trouble until the auxiliary tanks were switched on then this cork plug would cause a vapor lock and the plane would go down before the crew had time to find out what was wrong. 

One person at Dorval was found to be responsible for putting the plugs into the fuel lines and causing the loss of so many men and planes.  The details of the case were all very top secret and the findings were never released.  Who this person was working for was never disclosed but it certainly wasn’t our side.

Joe (Patty) Gilmore was working as a station engineer at Botwood before the war and after the war broke out he came to Gander with the R.A.F. Ferry Command.  “This is one man that should have been decorated a thousand times over for all the rescue missions he flew looking for downed planes,” said Mr. Edison.  He would go out in the Newfoundland Government plane, a Tiger Moth, and using only a compass, would fly in all types of weather looking for overdue aircraft.

One time a plane had gone down with 21 young, newly trained pilots on board.  Patty flew for two days in bad weather looking for them.  The aircraft was eventually found and only one of the 21 survived.

On the night that Joe McKay went down carrying Dr. Frederick Banting, Patty was one of the pilots in the air search for them.  One of the regular airlines reported that they had seen the words, “2 dead, 1 injured,” tramped out in the snow and outlined with boughs.  A ground crew found them but many people often wondered if Dr. Banting was killed on impact for the survivor had a professional looking bandage on his head which led to speculation that Dr. Banting survived the crash long enough to treat his fellow passenger before dying of exposure.

“Yes,” said Mr. Edison, “Patty Gilmore should have been decorated for no matter what the weather, if a plan was lost or missing, he was in the air looking for them.

The first house that Mr. Edison slept in on Gander, that is, the first regular house and not a barracks building, was the old Shell house.  Imperial Oil also built their own house and it is very interesting to realize that both of these buildings are still in use today and both across the street from each other on Edinburgh Avenue.

Mr. Edison was on the spot when a little girl was killed by the props of an incoming Lancaster.  The pilot had lost all his lights and all ground-to-air radio communication.  He was using the landing lights of the plane coming in ahead of him to make his way to the runway and no realized that there was more than one plane landing.  At that time, Chestnut Street cut across the end of the runway and a system of bells and lights was used to warn pedestrians of incoming ad outgoing flights.  When the bells and lights were off it was all right to cross the road.  When the first aircraft landed, the warning lights were shut off, the little girl started across the road and was cut down by the propellers of the second plane.  The crew wasn’t aware of the tragedy.  They had made a quick turn to clear the end of the runway and when the crew climbed out, one went to check the tires for damage.    He felt something sticky on his hand and said “My God, we’ve got an oil leak.”  It was only when he go into the light and discovered that what was on his hand was not oil but blood, did they start looking around to see what had happened.  It was then that they discovered they had killed a little girl.

In wandering down memory lane, Mr. Edison says he can remember a number of people who were quite prominent during the war years.  Charley Dawe first medical assistant (First Aid Man) who assisted Dr. Conrad when the Atlas and Belmont Construction companies were building the Old Gander site. 

The old Newfoundland Railway roadmaster was Tom Lannon who has retired and living at Port Blandford.  They moved from Cobb’s Camp to Hattie’s Camp (Gander) very early in Gander’s history, Mr. Edison thinks it must have in 1937.

He will never forget Morris Pike, who was an operator and repairman in the old coal burning steam plant and Tom Lannon, Jr., Garage Superintendent for D.O.T. and later assistant to the Airport Manager.

The runway repairs were handled by Hiram Noel and his brother, Jim who did the necessary maintenance, cleared the runways of snow and were in charge of lighting the runways with 12 volt battery operated lights before the electric lights were installed.

 Gordon Irish and Austin Mills were responsible for relaying and reporting weather from Botwood to Gander for the Meteorological Department.  Roland Pinsent was the first to find the Sabena aircraft that crashed on Shank’s Bog, North West Gander, and Corwin Staples, retired manager of Imperial Oil was the former coxswain on the Newfoundland government crash boat that assisted the flying boats in landing at Botwood and on Gander Lake.

 Arch Crane was the general foreman with Imperial Oil and Tom Harmon operated the railway staff care for the airport V.I.P’s.  The car was called “The Bug” and it ran from Norris Arm to Gander on the railway line. 

 Some of the early businessmen that Mr. Edison recalls were Jack Lush, who operated a store on the Army Side and the Lannon brothers who ran the first garage in Gander.

 Mr. Edison says that he has always enjoyed Gander.  It is, in his opinion, one of the best and cleanest towns in the world and Mr. Edison says he is pleased that the names of all the people that figured so prominently in Gander’s history have been preserved in the names of the streets.

 

researched by Carol Walsh

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