Meteorologist Rod Goff was a witness to aviation at Gander Airport


Rod Goff, who bore witness to the wartime transformation and growth of Newfoundland’s Gander Airport and the growth of transatlantic flight, died on July 27 at Gander, at age 99.

Hired in 1940 in the Newfoundland Weather Centre in Gander, Mr. Goff initially assisted in predicting weather for commercial air traffic flying through the treacherous North Atlantic.

Gander had been a website for plane passenger travel by companies like Imperial Airways in the late 1930s and the airport was not immediately used for military purposes in the outbreak of the Second World War. In actuality, consideration was given to abandoning it and ruining the runways to avoid enemy access. Then called only Newfoundland Airport, it was assembled by the governments of Britain and the then-independent Newfoundland. Canada took it over in April, 1940, and around this time renamed it Gander. With the fall of France in June, 1940, a neutral United States took an interest in sending an atmosphere garrison to Gander. By then, it was the biggest airport in the world.

Together with the subsequent formation of the Royal Air Force Ferry Command, Mr. Goff started providing meteorological support to pilots flying American-made aircraft into the European theater of war.

The Ferry Command, administered by Lord Beaverbrook, had started as an experiment, with initial ferry flight of seven Hudson bombers departing from Gander on Nov. 10, 1940. All seven airplanes arrived safely in Aldergrove, Ireland. Throughout the war, nearly 10,000 aircraft were ferried across the Atlantic, most from Gander but some departing from Goose Bay, Labrador, or flying a southern Atlantic route. Total losses were very low.

But there were casualties, perhaps most famously Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin, in February, 1941. Mr. Goff was present in the weather briefing which Dr. Banting personally asked half an hour before takeoff and Mr. Goff was among the last people to converse to the eminent doctor.

Soon after departure, the airplane crashed near Musgrave Harbour and Dr. Banting was mortally wounded. As a witness to the global headline-making tragedy, Mr. Goff stepped into debunk speculation that the Nobel Prize-winning physician was targeted for assassination by the Nazis and his plane sabotaged. Mr. Goff entered into the public record his recollection that the airplane was appropriately guarded and scrutinized. Mr. Goff maintained a photograph of Dr. Banting on a coffee table in his living room.

After the war ended, the Americans began to withdraw from Gander in 1945, and the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1946.

Mr. Goff also abandoned, in April, 1946. He moved to Pan Am’s aviation school at LaGuardia Airport, in New York, and became a Federal Aviation Administration-certified flight dispatcher. He was the first Newfoundlander to get the qualification and he returned to Gander in this new role with Pan Am. In these precomputer days, he would help map out plane routes, taking into consideration headwinds and fuel requirements, and designate alternate airports to the flight crews.

In the postwar decades, Gander became a heart of glamorous transatlantic flight. Propeller-driven aircraft required to stop there to refuel en route to Europe — people of BOAC, Air France, KLM, Aer Lingus, TAP, Swiss Air and Aeroflot among them. The revolution in Cuba produced a Havana-Moscow run, which also refuelled in Gander. The TWA flights to Rome were often packed with American archbishops and Monsignori, among whom arranged an audience with Pope Pius XII for Mr. Goff. He liked to travel and from Gander flew as far away as Australia — when he was 75.

The airport lounge was declared “one of the most beautiful Modernist rooms in the world,” by The New York Times, with features like a terrazzo floor, Eames chairs and a 72-foot mural by Kenneth Lochhead. Sir Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Ingrid Bergman passed through. Former U.S. president John F. Kennedy, then a congressman, left a generous tip in the Big Dipper pub. Mr. Goff met many of them and had a particularly notable encounter with the film star Maureen O’Hara. Her husband, Charles Blair, was a Pan Am pilot and they travelled through Newfoundland several times. He died in a plane crash in 1978, and if Ms. O’Hara transited though Gander again and discovered that Mr. Goff had known her husband, she sought him out for dialogue.

Gander’s significance declined with the coming of long-range jet aircraft for intercontinental travel in 1959. But to this day, its Control Centre still manages a huge airspace and 1,000 aircraft each day. Its geographic location remains vitally strategic, as demonstrated after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when U.S. airspace was closed down and 7,000 passengers were stranded in miniature Gander. The warm welcome that they received is now celebrated in the award-winning Broadway musical Come From Away.

Roderick Benedict Goff was born Aug. 16, 1916, in Whitney Pier, Cape Breton, the second son of five boys and two girls of John J. and Annie (née McNeil) Goff. His father was a businessman from Carbonear, Nfld., who opened a tailor shop in Whitney Pier to capitalize on the steel mill boom. When Mr. Goff was eight his mother died and his father took the kids back to his hometown of Carbonear.

Then, aviation exploits were obtained “such as the moon landing,” said Roderick’s son Gregory. The airstrip in Harbour Grace, where Mr. Goff would see gallant pioneers like Amelia Earhart, was only five kilometres from their dwelling.

In 1961, Mr. Goff moved to Eastern Provincial Airways — that was headquartered at Gander — and he remained there until his retirement 1981.

Mr. Goff then studied at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Ottawa, where he obtained an honours degree (his third postsecondary degree) in 1991.

When Mr. Goff was 87, he published a memoir titled Crossroads of the World. Though his vision was fading, he was undaunted, adapting a magnifying contraption, so he could see his own composing. A cordial, friendly guy, and very fit, he skated until he was 87 and lived on his own until he was 95, still walking into the grocery store daily.

Predeceased in 1978 by his wife Alice (née Curtis), he leaves sons, Gregory and Colin; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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