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According to the Wikipedia article and the original source Gander International Airport

had four runways and was the largest airport in the world

by 1945.

Now, "large" can mean a lot of things, as in

  • the number of runways
  • the surface area covered
  • the total area or volume of buildings
  • the number of airplane operations or passengers (you would typically use "busy" then, but who knows)

but I'm not familiar enough with airport history to know which ones I would have to compare it to. LaGuardia for example was opened on Dec 2, 1939 and also had four runways.

So, my question is, by what measure was Gander the largest airport at the time (of course, assuming, that it actually was, by any reasonable measure)?

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3 Answers 3

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In 1938 when it opened, Gander Airport was at least 250 acres in size of graded land and it had 35 acres of paved surfaces. It's four runways used 1,230,000 square yards of concrete to complete. It was at the time the largest paved runways in the world.

Other than the 250 acres of level surface, I could find no information on the hundreds of buildings located at the airport. At one time this included a USAAF air station, which was built after the physical airport was completed, with over 100 buildings for barracks, hospitals, hangars, warehouses and somewhere in the mix a fuel depot. There was an RCAF station located at the airport as well, which had a similar number of buildings. In addition, the Royal Canadian Navy had a communications outpost that was active through the Cold War. On top of that were 1700 civilians working at the airport. It needed the infrastructure to support hundreds of flights every day to get planes to the British Isles at the height of the war.

I think the size was considerably larger than 250 acres, but there's no data at all on the physical size of the airport. After the war, the churches, schools and libraries on base were donated to the town. It has about 175 acres available for lease if you are interested.

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    $\begingroup$ Mmh, Berlin-Tempelhof was 4.5 km² of total area (1100 acres) in 1941, but had no paved runways, just one large grass field. $\endgroup$ May 18 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ Are you claiming that the 250 acres of land made it the largest, the 35 acres of paved surface or the square yards of concrete? How does this compare to other airports of the time? @Raketenolli mentions Berlin-Tempelhof having a larger land area (but 3 years later). $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    May 18 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ @FreeMan The press and the airport claimed it was the largest in the world. I supplied information to better show why it was considered the largest airport in the world at the time. I think it's a combination of paved surfaces, thousands of employees, and land area. There was enough concrete poured just for runways and taxiways to build a 110 mile long two-lane road. $\endgroup$
    – gwally
    May 18 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ Gotcha. Thanks for the update. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    May 18 at 22:02
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99% Invisible contextualizes the importance of Gander:

By 1938, the Gander airport was fully operational but mostly unused. There just weren’t enough planes in operation that could actually survive the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. In the two decades before World War II, only 100 planes had crossed the Atlantic — 50 others had tried and failed and 40 people had died in various attempts.

So, following the ferrying flights in WW2, prop planes stopped at Gander. That era came to an end with the jet era- the jet powered DC8 and Boeing 707 both arrived in 1959, the same year a huge renovated terminal was completed at Gander, resulting in a visit from the queen. Anyhow, that means some numbers are available.

New York Times, June 21 1959, GANDER SPREADS ITS WINGS:

handles an estimated 13,000 aircraft and about 250,000 passengers a year.

That isn't the most by volume, though. For instance, London Heathrow was serving a million passengers per year by 1953, New York's Idlewild/JFK was handling "nearly 3 million" by 1954.

Perhaps it was simply disproportionately large or important.

(H/T @niels for starting down this path)

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    $\begingroup$ +1 since the pax numbers are really useful too; just one remark: the early 707s, DC-8s, and even the basic 747-100, didn't have transoceanic range, especially when flying westbound (headwind increasing the air distance), so they too made stops. $\endgroup$
    – user14897
    May 18 at 19:32
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Probably it was, just on the basis of the sheer number of planes arriving & departing per day. At that time, Gander was as close as you could get to destinations in Europe until they got planes capable of taking the polar route.

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