The Story Of Operation Yellow Ribbon

September 11th, 2001 will always be remembered as a day of tragedy, heartache and pain. But in some places, it was also a day where the true kindness of the human spirit shone through. A tiny town in Newfoundland called Gander was one such place, as Operation Yellow Ribbon played out.

Operation yellow ribbon
A small town played a big part in Operation Yellow Ribbon. Photo: Wikimedia

For any avgeek, and for many who aren’t remotely interested in aircraft too, the date of September 11th, 2001, needs no introduction. A day that became known as 9/11, it was a day of tragedy, loss and horror for thousands around the world. However, in other places it was also a day of unrivalled solidarity, strength and humanity. Canada was one such place.

In the aftermath of the deadly attacks, as airspace across the US and Canada closed down, the people of a tiny town in Newfoundland sprang to the rescue. Residents of Gander proved to the world just how great the human race can be when it works together, in a momentous piece of action known as Operation Yellow Ribbon.

Gander, Newfoundland

Gander is known by some as the ‘crossroads of the world’. Being the most easterly point of North America, the airport at Gander was a crucial refueling stop for transatlantic flights during the Second World War. As technology evolved, the airport was used less and less, although it remains to this day an important emergency stopping point for flights experiencing problems on transatlantic trips.

Gander is a long way from, well, everywhere. Image: Wikipedia

It’s a small place, isolated both geographically and physically from urbanization and with just 10,000 residents. However, what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in facilities, with a sizeable International Airport capable of handling aircraft of all shapes and sizes.

As the airspace over all of North America shut down, this presented a problem for the aircraft already flying. Those with enough fuel for a return journey were turned back, but 224 planes, carrying 33,000 passengers were too close to their destinations to do anything other than continue on.

Transport Canada, and the good people of Gander, stepped up to the plate. In a movement known as Operation Yellow Ribbon, or Opération ruban jaune in French, they sought to land as many aircraft as possible and look after those on board until flights could resume.

38 flights, 6,700 passengers

With the capable airport at its disposal, landing stranded aircraft was never going to be a problem for Gander. However, what to do with the 6,700 plus passengers and crew members was something quite different.

Gander airport
The capable airport made landing the flights a breeze. Image: Wikipedia

CBS reports that Gander had approximately 500 hotel rooms at their disposal. That took care of a few of their new arrivals, but what about everyone else? Fortunately, the warm hearted residents of the town were happy to help.

The 10,000 people of the towy flung open their doors to the unexpected visitors, offering food, drinks and places to stay. Community centers and schools were turned into shelters, giving people places to sleep. Residents donated piles of food and bedding to help keep everyone safe and comfortable.

In total, Gander received 38 international jetliners, second only to Halifax who took in 47 diverted flights.

Thank you, Gander

Although it’s contribution at the time went largely unnoticed, Gander’s part in Operation Yellow Ribbon has become a large part of the 9/11 story. A little piece of Newfoundland is at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and a piece of the World Trade Centre has found a home in Gander too.

Prior to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, TV journalist and author Tom Brokaw produced a video about Operation Yellow Ribbon, which is well worth a watch if you have some spare time.

It’s even had a musical made about it!