The frequency of military flights into airports in St. John’s and Gander has increased as military and other aid flows toward Ukraine.
St. John’s International Airport officials say there were 131 landings in May, the most arrivals since 144 arrivals were recorded in June 2019.
The airport would not comment on the reason for the increased number of flights, or provide a more detailed breakdown of military flight activity at the airport. However, the authority’s website says there are roughly 1,300 military aircraft arrivals each year as planes land for fuel or crew rest.
Officials at Gander International Airport were also guarded about releasing information related to military flights.
In a statement, Gander airport president and CEO Reg Wright said there is a “significant air bridge created by the crisis in Ukraine, and military traffic has doubled over pre-pandemic levels in recent months.”
Wright would not reveal any statistics, saying the authority does not disclose data on the country of origin, routing, aircraft type or total counts.
Gander airport has been accommodating military aviation since 1938, said Wright.
“It’s normal to see traffic increase in times of conflict.”
Military traffic practically evaporated in St. John’s and Gander during the pandemic, Wright said, “[but] we are now welcoming military partners back, and it’s an important part of what we do here.”
At 5 Wing Goose Bay, meanwhile, the number of military flights is actually down from a spike in traffic in 2021, when there were 658 landings of a variety of cargo and combat aircraft.
While many of the flights into Goose Bay are Canadian military aircraft, the Labrador base also welcomes planes from the United States, Germany, France, Egypt, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, said a base official.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has pleaded for international help to push back the invaders.
Canada and the United States, among other countries, have answered that call, approving billions in both weapons and non-military aid for Ukraine.
Much of that aid from North America is being moved by ships and civilian cargo planes, but the U.S. Air Force’s massive fleet of planes has mobilized, and that means an uptick in landings in St. John’s and Gander.
Aviation enthusiasts like Gary Hebbard of St. John’s have taken notice.
“There’s an awful lot of military traffic coming through here, especially C-130 Hercules, the four-engine, propeller-driven transport planes,” said Hebbard.
The airports in St. John’s, Gander and Goose Bay have a long history of being a waypoint for military cargo. They were vital for Allied forces in the Second World War, and another European conflict is once again proving their value.
Newfoundland is an island in the North Atlantic, and the closest point of land in North America, excluding Greenland, to Europe.
So planes carrying heavy loads often touch down in order to refuel, and sometimes rest their crews.
“It’s the shortest route across the Atlantic,” said Hebbard.
David Perry, defence and foreign policy analyst for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa, is not surprised at the role being played by Newfoundland and Labrador airports.
“It’s a logical place to stop for refueling, overnight if you’ve got crew time issues, flight time schedules, those types of things,” said Perry.
“It’s long been a great transit point for aircraft going across the Atlantic Ocean and it remains so today.”
Long runways and modern services also help attract the planes, Hebbard explained.
“We’ve got the facilities to be able to look after crews if they’re going to be here overnight, and there’s facilities here to repair the aircraft. If an aircraft lands with some sort of technical problem, it can generally be taken care of here,” he said.
Military aircraft practically disappeared from the runways in St. John’s and Gander during the pandemic. But they’re back, and so are the spinoffs that come with them.
In May, for example, 1,400 room-nights were booked by military personnel at the Delta Hotel in downtown St. John’s. accounting for 11 per cent of the hotel’s overall business, said general manager Heather McKinnon.
“In May there was a huge surge for military crews,” said McKinnon.
Most of the cargo planes are owned by the U.S. Air Force, but McKinnon said hotel also accommodates crews from the United Kingdom, Belgium and France, among other countries.
“They are a really good piece of business; well behaved and professional,” said McKinnon.
It’s good business for the three fixed-base operators at St. John’s airport that fuel the aircraft and look after the crews, and downtown businesses also benefit from the activity.
But the reason for that increased businesses is a sobering one, as Ukraine and its people fight for their survival.
“In the last several weeks in particular there’s been an urgency around delivering things quickly as events on the ground have been unfolding dynamically,” said David Perry.
“And the massive size of that support and the urgency of getting it there, has put in a significant request for military airlift to get all that stuff from North America to Ukraine. And for the folks in Newfoundland, dating back to the Second World War when my grandmother was stationed at Torbay, you’ve got a strategic piece of real estate that comes in awfully handy when you’re looking to do those long-haul flights with this kind of a kit.”
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