A Canadian Town’s Response to 9/11

Talk about a bad first day at work, for Benedict Sliney, September 11, 2001 was his first day in a new job as Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) National Operations Manager.

At 8:46 a.m. on that morning, a jumbo jet plowed into the North Tower of New York City’s iconic World Trade Center, followed shortly thereafter by a second plane that plowed into the South Tower.

At 9:42 a.m., when the Air Traffic Control System Command Center learned that a third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, had crashed into the Pentagon in northern Virginia five minutes earlier, Sliney took the unprecedented step and initiated SCATANA.

SCATANA stands for Security Control of Air Traffic and Air Navigation Aids, and it is an emergency preparedness plan for actions to be taken by the U.S. Department of Defense, the FAA, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the event of a national security threat.

Originated in 1971, SCATANA has only been invoked once (other than in tests), on September 11, 2001, when a codeword was broadcast to all airplanes currently in U.S. airspace or heading toward it to get out of the sky.

The Department of Defense did allow the command and control operations of the U.S.’s air traffic control system to continue to be administered by the FAA. The DoD also allowed all radio navigation aids to continue so that the approximately 4,200 aircraft that were then aloft could safely land.

Planes that were within U.S. airspace were ordered to land at the nearest airport that had a runway of sufficient length. Planes that were outside of U.S. airspace would not be allowed to land on U.S. soil, and that’s when Canada stepped in and initiated Operation Yellow Ribbon.

Operation Yellow Ribbon

Then Canadian Transport Minister, David Collenette, gave orders to close Canadian airspace to all outgoing flights except for police and military flights. He also announced that all inbound aircraft to the U.S. that were past their “point of no return,” or more than halfway to their destination, would be allowed to land at one of Canada’s military or civilian airports.

Canadian airports. Source: Redgeographics/Wikimedia Commons

As the first planes started landing, Nav Canada, Canada’s civil air navigation system, tried to avoid having them land at airports in Ottawa, Toronto, or Montreal, due to security concerns. Instead, flights from Europe were diverted to Canadian Forces Base Goose Bay in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which took in seven planes.

Gander airport
Gander airport. Source: 103rd Rescue Unit/Wikimedia Commons

Gander International Airport sits in the most easterly part of North America. During World War II, it was an important refueling stop for transatlantic flights, and on 9/11, Gander’s air traffic control successfully re-routed 200 flights, bringing the planes down to small airports located in Eastern Canada.

Gander’s own airport took in 38 jumbo jets, parking them wingtip to wingtip on its runways. Around 6,600 passengers and crew were onboard those planes, an extremely high number, considering that Gander’s population at that time was only 10,000 people. This led then-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to state that there were more people at Gander’s airport than in the town.

The Halifax International Airport took in 40 flights, while St. John’s International Airport, Greater Moncton International Airport, and Stephenville International Airport took in the remainder of the transatlantic flights.

Over on the west side of Canada, the only airport capable of landing the wide-body aircraft used on transpacific routes was Vancouver International Airport. It took in 34 flights carrying 8,500 people.

Planes coming from South America were diverted to Mexico. The 35 planes coming from Europe and Asia that were flying circumpolar routes were diverted to airports in the Canadian cities of Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Yellowknife.

One of those planes, Korean Air Flight 85, had been scheduled to refuel at Anchorage, Alaska before making its way to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Due to a faulty transponder, and a language barrier with the crew, concerns were raised about this flight, and fighter jets were launched by the Canadian Forces Air Command and the U.S. Air Force to intercept and accompany the plane as it landed at Whitehorse International Airport in the Yukon.

Strangers in a strange land

Onboard the planes, which were parked in neat rows along Canadian airport runways, the task fell to the pilots to tell their frightened passengers what had happened. Transport Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were quickly organized to perform customs and security tasks, but many passengers were confined to their planes for up to 24 hours.

For passengers who had been diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, things began looking up when residents of Gander and its neighboring towns showed up at the airport and delivered food, clothing, and supplies to the planes.

While they were doing that, other residents of Gander were creating makeshift shelters in schools, legion halls, and community centers where the passengers would stay once they were allowed off their planes. Gander’s bus drivers, who at the time were on strike, even returned to work in order to take the passengers to shelters.

As a Houston resident Diane Kirschke recently told CNN, once passengers on Continental Airlines Flight 5, which was traveling from London Gatwick to Houston, Texas, deplaned, the people of Gander “… were so friendly and open. They just welcomed us … and they were going to take care of us.”

Also onboard the Continental flight was British businessman Nick Marson. He and Diane Kirschke were taken to the same shelter located around 30 miles outside of Gander. There, Nick and Diane struck up a conversation and before they knew it, they were taking part in a Newfoundland tradition that involved drinking a lot of alcohol and kissing a cod fish, presumably a dead one.

The Newfoundlanders also took their unexpected guests on outings to local spots. After five days, the Gander passengers were finally allowed to leave and return to their homes. Nick and Diane continued their flight to Houston, where Nick spent a couple of days conducting his business and the pair had several dinners together.

When he flew home to Britain, Nick found that he couldn’t forget Diane, and less than two months later, he persuaded his employer to transfer him to Houston, and he proposed to Diane. They were married a year after they had first met, and there was no question as to where they wanted to honeymoon — Gander.

While Nick and Diane thought they’d meet up quietly with some of the Gander residents who had been so kind to them, instead, they walked into what Nick described to CNN as, “… a full blown wedding reception complete with a multi-layer wedding cake, gifts, candlelight, the head table had champagne…” Providing the entertainment was the town’s mayor, who had written a song especially for the couple.

The aftermath

Nav Canada reported that a total of 239 airplanes carrying between 30,000 and 45,000 passengers were diverted to 17 different airports across Canada. While the 9/11 Commission Report doesn’t refer to SCATANA directly, it does mention the unprecedented order, and it commends the air traffic controllers who carried it out.

The U.S. passengers who were able to return to their homes sent messages of thanks to the airports and towns where they had been so welcomed. The airports at Edmonton and Halifax even published some of those letters of thanks in their annual reports.

A year after the tragedy, on September 11, 2002, 2,500 people gathered at the Gander International Airport to mark the first anniversary of the attacks. Prime Minister Chrétien addressed the crowd saying, “9/11 will live long in memory as a day of terror and grief. But thanks to the countless acts of kindness and compassion done for those stranded visitors … it will live forever in memory as a day of comfort and of healing.”

In 2013, a Tony and Olivier award-winning musical entitled “Come From Away” was created that described the experiences of the Gander residents and their guests. It ran on Broadway starting in 2017, and it received a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical. A filmed version of “Come From Away” will premiere on Apple TV+ on September 10, 2021.

Lufthansa's Gander-Halifax
Lufthansa’s Gander-Halifax. Source: Mo7amedsalim/Wikimedia Commons

Lufthansa Airlines christened one of its Airbus A340 aircraft “Gander–Halifax” to honor those two cities which had received Lufthansa flights during Operation Yellow Ribbon.

On February 27, 2010, as part of its coverage of the Vancouver Olympics, NBC aired a documentary created by journalist Tom Brokaw entitled, “Operation Yellow Ribbon.” It showcases the spirit and generosity of the people of Gander and the special bonds that were created between its people and the passengers.

A piece of Gander is included in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. It is a small tile that New York resident Jacqueline Pinto bought in a shop at Gander while she was stranded there.

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