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A 1940 Landing

by Frank Tibbo

Landing at an airport today is pretty routine; however, to say things could be very interesting in 1940 is probably an understatement. The following story comes from a document called Atlantic Bridge, labelled as the official account of the RAF Transport Command's Ocean Ferry. It describes conditions at the airport in addition to giving a first-hand account of a landing. (Official Account of RAF Transport Command's Ocean Ferry)

‘The base, where the new Hudsons were being directed, was a remote tract of land which might be found marked on a very large-scale map of Newfoundland as Hattie’s Camp. Those who were concerned with the long-term planning of trans-Atlantic flying during the Thirties had already envisaged this lonely lumber clearing as a North American terminal. The airport was built by the Newfoundland government in co-operation with the Air Ministry. It took the name Gander, from the nearby Gander Lake, and was already in use for experimental flying in 1937. Powerful signal units moved there in 1938. By the fall of 1940, some four million dollars had been spent on clearing, leveling, runway construction and signals: but the urgent need for bombers then transformed the Gander of the backwoods, in a matter of months, to one of the world's busiest airports.

In its vastness of spruce and fir, dappled with lakes and swift rivers, Gander is now a blend of amazing contrasts. There are no roads leading to the outer world: but aircraft constantly land which would carry you to New York, London, Ottawa or Algiers in less than a day. There is a railway, though it takes longer to reach Newfoundland's capital of St. John's by train than it takes to reach London by air. Should you wish to visit the pictures, the camp cinema shows modern films twice nightly. You can see bear in the environs of the field and present-day Liberators take off over a beaver dam. You may eat fresh local trout for dinner, but your vegetables have been flown 950 miles from Montreal. Gander is now a wartime Royal Canadian Air Force Station, used also by the RAF and the USAAF Air traffic has made this isolated corner of Newfoundland one of the busiest cosmopolitan communities in North America.

Gander conditions were primitive during those days of snow and cutting wind at the end of October 1940, when the first delivery flight of Hudsons began to trickle in. There were no quarters for the crews: so rolling stock was borrowed from the narrow-gauge Newfoundland Railway. A restaurant car and two sleepers lent by the Company were placed on a siding near the hangar: and there the crews spent their time until all was ready. This is how the member of a crew described his own arrival from Montreal:

‘We broke out of the clouds over the North Shore, which, while not what we were looking for, permitted good map reading and shortly we had a splendid fix. With the help of the Colonel (a passenger) who had been stationed in Botwood and knew the coast, we began picking up little villages and later on Botwood itself, and, of course, the railroad. Everyone was quite elated and in high spirits as we started up the track to the airport, cautioning the Skipper not to go following the railroad through any tunnels.

We were soon over the camp, and from the air it looked quite all right, which was our mistake of the whole trip. What looked like bare spots in the snow on the runways was actually four to six inches of slush. Down we went with the Colonel and myself holding down the tail, but when we hit, it was quite apparent that all was not well. Slush, snow and water came up over the cockpit in what seemed a solid mass and for a moment I was sure we would nose over. The skipper gunned her, and we stayed all down at 17:35 G.M.T. Our inner flaps had been damaged but otherwise all was well.

Everyone was out to welcome us and in a few minutes we had picked out for ourselves the best bunks in the sleeping car we were to use for twelve days as our home. The stewards seemed as glad to see us as everyone else and had a really good lunch all ready. I always did like eating in dining cars, and the twelve days we dined in that little old narrow-gauge Newfoundland Railway Co. dining car didn't sicken me of it a bit.’

 

Submitted by F. Tibbo

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