The frequency of military flights to St. John’s and Gander airports has increased as military and other aid pours into Ukraine.
St. John’s International Airport officials say there were 131 landings in May, the highest number of arrivals since 144 arrivals were recorded in June 2019.
The airport would not comment on the reason for the increase in flights or provide a more detailed breakdown of military flight activity at the airport. However, the authority’s website says there are about 1,300 military aircraft arrivals each year as planes land for fuel or crew rest.
Gander International Airport officials were also cautious about releasing information about military flights.
In a statement, Gander Airport President and CEO Reg Wright said there was “a significant airlift created by the crisis in Ukraine, and military traffic has doubled from levels before the pandemic in recent months”.
Wright would not reveal any statistics, saying the authority did not release data on country of origin, route, aircraft type or total number.
Gander Airport has been home to military aviation since 1938, Wright said.
“It is normal to see traffic increase in times of conflict.”
Military traffic has all but evaporated in St. John’s and Gander during the pandemic, Wright said, “[but] we are now welcoming military partners again, and that is an important part of what we do here.”
At 5 Wing Goose Bay, meanwhile, the number of military flights is actually down from peak traffic in 2021, when there were 658 landings from a variety of cargo and combat aircraft. .
While many flights to Goose Bay are Canadian military aircraft, the Labrador base also receives aircraft from the United States, Germany, France, Egypt, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, said a base manager.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded for international help to repel the invaders.
Canada and the United States, among other countries, have answered that call, approving billions in arms and non-military aid for Ukraine.
Much of this aid from North America is being transported by civilian ships and cargo planes, but the US Air Force’s huge fleet of aircraft has been mobilized, meaning increased landings at St. John’s and Gander.
Aviation enthusiasts like Gary Hebbard of St. John’s took notice.
“There’s a lot of military traffic going through here, especially the C-130 Hercules, the four-engine propeller-driven transport planes,” Hebbard said.
St. John’s, Gander and Goose Bay airports have long been a transit point for military cargo. They were vital to Allied forces during World War II, and another European conflict once again proves their worth.
Newfoundland is an island in the North Atlantic and the closest point of land to Europe, excluding Greenland, in North America.
Thus, planes carrying heavy loads often land to refuel, and sometimes rest their crews.
“It’s the shortest route across the Atlantic,” Hebbard said.
David Perry, a defense and foreign policy analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa, is not surprised at the role played by airports in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“It’s a logical place to stop to refuel, at night if you’re having issues with crew times, flight schedules, that sort of thing,” Perry said.
“It has long been an excellent staging point for planes crossing the Atlantic Ocean and it remains so today.”
Long runways and modern services also help attract planes, Hebbard said.
“We have the facilities to be able to take care of the crews if they have to be here overnight, and there are facilities here to repair the plane. If a plane lands with some sort of technical problem, it can usually be taken in charge from here,” he said.
Military aircraft have all but disappeared from runways in St. John’s and Gander during the pandemic. But they’re back, and so are the accompanying spinoffs.
In May, for example, 1,400 nights were booked by military personnel at the Delta Hotel in downtown St. John’s. accounting for 11 percent of the hotel’s overall business, said general manager Heather McKinnon.
“In May there was a huge increase in military crews,” McKinnon said.
Most of the cargo planes belong to the US Air Force, but McKinnon said the hotel also hosts crews from the UK, Belgium and France, among other countries.
“They’re a really good company; well behaved and professional,” McKinnon said.
It’s good business for St. John’s airport’s three fixed operators who fuel planes and look after crews, and downtown businesses also benefit from the activity.
But the reason for this increase in business is sobering, as Ukraine and its people are fighting for survival.
“Over the past few weeks in particular, there has been an urgency to deliver things quickly as events on the ground have unfolded dynamically,” said David Perry.
“And the massive size of that support, and the urgency to get it there, resulted in a massive demand for military airlift to get all that material from North America to Ukraine. And for the people of Newfoundland, going back to WWII when my grandmother was stationed in Torbay, you have strategic real estate that’s extremely handy when you’re looking to do those long haul flights with that kind of kit .”
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