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On September 11, 2001, after terror attacks in the US led Federal Aviation Administration officials to shut down US airspace, dozens of US-bound commercial flights from Europe were forced to divert. In the end, 38 flights, hauling some 6,600 passengers, touched down at Gander International Airport (YQX) in Newfoundland, Canada, thanks to the airport’s long runways and on-site equipment.

The diversions tested the limits of the airport and the tiny town in northeast Canada, with the 38 flights reportedly doubling its population in the span of hours. So significant was this day to the 7,000 residents and their village that a play was written about it. Now, some 17 years later, Gander remains an active alternate airport for the 2,000+ flights that cross the Atlantic every day, and it’s finally slated for some upgrades.

(Photo courtesy Gander Airport)
(Photo courtesy of Gander Airport)

The recently announced upgrades are mostly focused on the airport’s runways, roads and taxiways, which need to be repaired for Gander’s daily air traffic and in case of another large-scale diversion. The project will include repaving the 8,900-foot long Runway 13/31, the smaller of the airport’s two runways. Both this runway and its larger counterpart are capable of handling anything from tiny propeller planes to mighty 747s and A380s — and they’ll be in even better shape to do so after construction finishes.

Originally built in the 1930s as a stopping point for overseas flights to refuel, Gander’s role in regularly scheduled commercial air travel has shifted entirely, as modern aircraft can make the North Atlantic hop with ease. Nowadays, the airport’s primary function for large commercial jets is that of a diversion point should any serious mechanical (or other) issues arise during the flight.

(Photo courtesy Gander Airport)
(Photo courtesy of Gander Airport)

But it’s more than that. Ask any North American or European pilot who’s flown across the Atlantic, and they’ll certainly know Gander. Even though it’s small, its reach extends nearly halfway across the ocean. Pilots correspond with “Gander Center” until they’re passed onto Shanwick control on the other side of the pond. Consequently, these controllers handle hundreds if not thousands of large commercial jets every day. And after the US airspace closure on 9/11, Gander’s unique location is exactly why those 38 flights diverted to this tiny Canadian town. 

Courtesy of Google Maps
(Courtesy of Google Maps)

While we don’t anticipate seeing the updated surfaces for ourselves, we’ll travel easier knowing that Gander will be prepared should any pilots deem it a necessary emergency stopping point on a future transatlantic flight.

Featured image courtesy of Gander Airport.

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