[FoRK] Classic article on airport architecture/"airspaces": YQX

Rohit Khare khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Mon Mar 28 04:37:11 PST 2005

> Airport Code  YQX
> Airport name Gander Airport
> Runway Length 10500 ft.
> Runway Elevation 496 ft.

March 20, 2005

Gander Airport: When the Going Was Good

Visitors to the island of Newfoundland, the easternmost part of Canada, 
are traditionally welcomed with a Screech In. This ancient ceremony, by 
which one attains honorary citizenship, involves kissing a cod on the 
lips -- or, absent that, a puffin's posterior -- and downing a shot of 
Screech Rum, Atlantic Canada's ''golden elixir.'' Foreign dignitaries 
and heads of state are not excluded. His Royal Highness Prince Philip 
was treated to a variation of the ritual when he was the guest of honor 
alongside the queen at the inauguration of a new terminal at Gander 
International Airport in 1959.

  At that time, Gander was the most important airport in the world. On 
the route between New York and London, trans-Atlantic flights had to 
land there to refuel, so everyone flying between North America and 
Europe stopped off at the Crossroads of the World, as it became known. 
Opened in 1938, it had the biggest landing field ever constructed. 
Business boomed following the onset of mass commercial flight after 
World War II, and major renovations were undertaken in the late 50's to 
accommodate the stream of passengers. Seeking to project a modern, 
stylish image of Canada, the government commissioned a futuristic 
terminal filled with avant-garde art and furniture. The Beacon, a 
newspaper in Gander, declared that the refurbished airport was ''bound 
to convince every first time arrival from overseas that this, then, is 

  But paradise soon became frozen in time. With the advent of jet fuel, 
stopovers became unnecessary; in the 1960's, traffic slowed to a 
trickle. (These days, traveling to Gander, population 9,650, is itself 
like going back in time; Air Canada only flies there on tiny 
twin-turboprop planes.) Perfectly preserved, the terminal is a time 
capsule from the heady days when travel was exotic and airports were 
beacons of the future. ''It's still one of the most beautiful, most 
important Modernist rooms in the country, if not the most important,'' 
says Alan C. Elder, the curator of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

A 72-foot mural by Kenneth Lochhead, its paint tempered with more than 
500 dozen eggs, looms over it. The terrazzo floor is a Mondrianesque 
caprice that children once used for hopscotch. ''There's a playfulness 
to the room,'' says Elder, ''but it's also so sophisticated.'' The 
midcentury furniture, mainly Canadian originals, is impeccably arranged 
on the geometric flooring: the Prismasteel seating was designed by 
Robin Bush for Herman Miller; the sleek black leather chairs and 
couches on the mezzanine look like they were designed for space travel. 
Not everything has survived, however. Charles and Ray Eames's Aluminum 
Group chairs, covered with an Alexander Girard fabric, are gone, but 
their fiberglass chairs can still be found, notably opposite a long 
mirror in the pink, maroon and gray powder room.

''A lot of very important people have sat in those chairs,'' muses Gary 
R. Vey, the airport's president and chief executive. Vey's office is 
filled with the orange leather Jacques Guillon seats that once occupied 
the Distinguished Visitors Suite. Ron Jones, the former head of 
catering, remembers those chairs well: ''I was getting everyone wets'' 
- drinks - ''and the empress of Iran stopped in with the embassy 
entourage. When she went to sit down, the straps on the bottom of the 
chair gave way, and her tail feathers hit the deck. Boom!'' The V.I.P. 
room guest list reads like a who's who of 20th-century arts, ideas and 
politics. The Beatles first set foot on North American soil at Gander. 
Frank Sinatra tried to butt in line at the bar and was asked to wait 
his turn. Jackie O., Churchill, Khrushchev, Marlene Dietrich, the king 
of Sweden, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Richard Burton, Elizabeth 
Taylor, Ingrid Bergman - the list of signatories fills 
encyclopedia-size ledgers. Gander resembled a real-life version of 
those Edward Hopper ''Nighthawks'' knockoffs with Marilyn Monroe, James 
Dean, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley all at one desolate - but 
spectacularly lighted - terminal.

The anecdotes are like a mainline into the Twilight Zone. ''My memory 
is very vivid of the night I chatted with Albert Einstein,'' Mary 
Smeaton MacDonald, a former gift-shop employee, says in a pamphlet for 
Gander's 1997 Airlines Reunion. What did they talk about? ''Oh, the 
theory of relativity.'' Marilyn Stuckless, who was the airport's 
commercial developer, says: ''When I was a teeny-bopper, we were out 
tobogganing when Castro and his bodyguards came to join us. It was the 
first time they'd seen snow, and they were playing like children.'' On 
Sundays, the entire town congregated at the terminal to eat Brookfield 
ice cream and watch the jet set swoop into town. Because security was a 
nonissue, the locals were able to mingle with travelers in the 
terminal. ''It was like a big club,'' Stuckless says. ''You'd go up to 
someone and start speaking to them. I sat down next to Muhammad Ali 
when he was here, because that's what Newfoundlanders do. This is a 
little island in the Atlantic, and it's very relaxed compared to what 
most people are accustomed to. You could almost call us a bunch of 
innocents.'' Indeed, that laid-back, charming demeanor is what put the 
Rock (as Newfoundland is known) on the map again. On 9/11, dozens of 
planes had to land at Gander, and locals took thousands of stranded 
travelers into their homes. This hospitality was reciprocated with an 
outpouring of gratitude culminating last December with President Bush's 
first and only official trip to Canada, where he offered thanks to the 
maritime provinces.

Today, the gigantic runway handles predominantly cargo and military 
planes. It also serves as an alternate landing base for space shuttles 
and an emergency drop-off point for air-rage passengers. It's not 
unusual to see soldiers in fatigues, returning from Iraq, reclining on 
the modular furniture. Private jets stop regularly to refuel: John 
Travolta, Mariah Carey and Bill and Hillary Clinton are among recent 
visitors to the V.I.P. suite. (Gander's main source of income was once 
Soviet-bloc aircraft, but mass defections, wherein passengers would 
flee into the surrounding woods, led to a crackdown by immigration 
authorities.) Gander still exerts a magnetic attraction. A glass 
corridor has been built to accommodate those who come to view the 
international terminal. Though surrounded by turnip farms, moose and 
the occasional polar bear, this small town was, for a brief spell, the 
most cosmopolitan destination in the world. But one that embraced 
newcomers, at a time when the idea of the world's getting smaller 
filled us with hope, not fear.

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