Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement July 23, 1986
Contributed by Carol (Mercer) Walsh - Class 1954
“Fond memories of constant challenge” – Cyril Rowsell
The end of the Second World War marked a critical turning point in the development of Gander as an international airport. And, the ensuing transition of aviation services and operations from military to governmental control was the single most important factor which shaped the town as we now know it.
Throughout the war years, Gander had grown to become a strategically indispensable base in the allied defence network. The airfield served squadrons of bombers, fighters and other military aircraft en route to and returning from Europe as well as those of civil airlines whose overseas flights were also under military control.
In assuming responsibility for the airport, the Newfoundland Government recruited a wide range of aviation specialists to take over certain specific jobs. Among them was Cyril Rowsell, a native of Millertown Junction.
Mr. Rowsell had flown with the Royal Air force Transport Command during the war and had been in Montreal for two years when he was asked to return to Newfoundland in 1946.
He would be part of a nucleus consisting for the most part of ex-military personnel, assembled to inherit air services at Gander.
Mr. Rowsell was assigned air traffic control duties. Until the postwar transition, these had been co-ordinated by the RAF in conjunction with civilian employees of the telecommunications centre.
Meanwhile, with the takeover by the Newfoundland Government, responsibility for oceanic control was transferred to Moncton, leaving the Gander tower in control of the airport and immediate area. Still, Gander would, for many years, remain the western anchor for transatlantic flight.
Thus, the stage was set for the development of civil aviation, a concept all but ignored in the heat of war.
Over the next three years, Gander rapidly changed from a military base to a civilian airport serving a great majority of airlines in the western world.
As Mr. Rowsell recalls, each airline had a fairly large staff, consisting of company employees posted to Gander, along with locally hired workers. The result, he says, was a truly international community with a variety of nationalities sharing facilities and developing keen friendships.
In most cases, the only thing these people had in common before arriving at Gander was their background in aviation. Yet, this common denominator could not have been a more binding force in those pioneer years.
“You can go anywhere in the world and you’ll find that aviation people are like brothers, even if they’ve never met before,” says Mr. Rowsell. And, he explains, it was this atmosphere which broke through the barriers of language and culture.
“They left us with a much better understanding of different peoples and nations,” he believes, “and this is still evident in Gander today.”
By 1949, Gander had become the “Crossroads of the World” and one of the busiest airports in Eastern Canada, with up to 50 flights on refueling stops in the course of an evening. The energy once applied to the development of military aviation was being channeled into civil flight and Gander’s role of serving the world continued to grow.
“With Confederation,” says Rowsell, “one of the first considerations was to bring oceanic control back to Gander.” He was one of four local controllers who completed a t raining course at Moncton, returning to become Gander’s first oceanic air traffic controllers.
Throughout the 1950s, transoceanic traffic increased dramatically. Mr. Rowsell estimates that the number of landings rose by some 15 to 29 percent annually, though the side of the aircraft crossing the Atlantic remained much the same until the advent of the jet age in the early ‘60s.
Among the first of the jet-powered aircraft to be serviced at Gander was the British Comet. It was followed within a year or two by larger American jets. In the years which followed the aircraft grew steadily larger and, while the number of overseas passengers increased, the number of landings at Gander leveled out.
The jets were faster and had a longer range than their turboprop predecessors. In one sense, it was the end of an era for Gander which once, by its very presence, had made transoceanic flight possible.
Yet, the evolution of jet travel heralded new developments in the civil aviation industry. With new operational procedures and faster aircraft, there came a pressing need for changes to standards set by the international aviation community.
Mr. Rowsell. Who had been designated Chief Controller in 1960, worked closely with Ottawa and international aviation authorities in the development of these new standards as a technical adviser.
The introduction of commercial jetliners also made older, smaller aircraft readily available and many of these were purchased by emerging charter operators. A number of those companies offered overseas excursions.
“The charter flights still had to use Gander and Shannon (Ireland) as their anchor airports,” Mr. Rowsell points out. “As well the two airports were in competition for a certain amount of business just as they are today,” he adds.
During those years, the airport offered package contracts which included virtually all services from refueling and ramp service to meals. Both airport staff and airline employees were fewer in number, Mr. Rowsell recalls, and many friendships were sparked along the way.
“We owed our existence to these people and we gave them the best service we could offer,” he says. “We built a good reputation for both service and hospitality and that good name has been upheld ever since,” he adds. “Being from Gander is like having a special aviation passport,” he believes. “To this day, you can go anywhere in the world and get VIP treatment just by finding someone with a background in aviation.”
Another area in which Gander played a significant role was the development of supersonic flight, with the introduction in the early 1970s of the Concorde SST, a joint venture between England and France. It was a highly controversial project and Rowsell was again called upon to help establish standards for testing the aircraft.
“The Concorde was originally designed for a New York to Paris run but, with considerable opposition from the United States over the noise level, there was some talk of going into Mexico City instead,” he explains, adding that the longer route would entail a regularly scheduled service stop at Gander.
“Regrettably, it was a fuel guzzler and, as fuel prices soared, the ‘air bus’ concept became more popular,” he relates. “Basically, money became more important than speed. Airlines found that best way to make money was to offer minimum service and cheaper fares to get more people flying,” he adds.
“Today, the name of Gander is so well implanted in the world aviation community,” Mr. Rowsell points out, “that the town can look forward to a healthy and stable future.” “If we can continue to offer top service to the world market, we can certainly remain viable within the industry,” he says.
Reflecting on the early years, when the citizens of Gander were charged with opening doors to a new industry, he notes, “they were pioneers, every one; this was something new and exciting – adventurous – and every one of them can look back with fond memories of constant challenge.”