On September 11, 2001, the United States shut down its airspace in response to the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. At that moment, there were still hundreds of international flights crossing the Atlantic and Pacific bound for destinations now closed to them. These planes were too far along to turn back, and were ordered to land in Canada.
“Operation Yellow Ribbon,” as told by Tom Brokaw, is the story of how Canadians came to the aid of Americans on September 11 and the days that followed, managing the crisis in the skies and then welcoming thousands of passengers into their communities and homes. This documentary focuses on the town of Gander, in Newfoundland, one of many locations where Canadian spirit and generosity were on full display. This town of just 10,000 people played a significant role because of its specific place in aviation history, its outsized response in relation to its small population, and the lasting bonds formed by its citizens and the stranded passengers for whom they provided a safe port.
Before Newfoundland was even officially part of Canada, Gander was an important military installation for the Allied Forces in the late 1930s, centered around what was at the time the world’s largest airport. Newfoundland is the easternmost territory in North America, making it the ideal refueling location for flights crossing the Atlantic during World War II.
When jumbo jets capable of crossing the ocean without refueling became popular, Gander’s role in aviation was greatly reduced, only to become vital again in September 2001. The Area Control Center (ACC) in Gander is the gateway facility for all Trans-Atlantic flights. On September 11, the Gander ACC successfully re-routed nearly 200 flights, mostly to small airports in Eastern Canada. Gander’s own airport, which today handles minimal traffic, incredibly landed 38 jumbo jets in a matter of hours, the planes filling the tarmac lined up wingtip to wingtip. Nearly 7000 passengers and crew were onboard, a number that would nearly double Gander’s population
Over the next several days, the people of Gander and in surrounding communities responded with countless acts of kindness and generosity, providing food and clothes and beds and showers and places to stay and, perhaps most important, emotional comfort — until U.S. airspace reopened and they could finally return home.
“Operation Yellow Ribbon” focuses on how Gander air traffic officials handled the crisis and safely landed nearly 200 jumbo jets. It also weaves a variety of stories of people who were stranded in Gander and the locals who cared for them, forging deep, enduring bonds along the way. Among them were the parents of a New York City firefighter who was an emergency responder at the World Trade Center; a retired Ohio State administrator who was so inspired by Canadian hospitality she helped to organize a scholarship fund for local students (see below for more information); and a Texas woman and British man who found true love during that fateful week in September 2001.
The film features extensive local and home video. And, in September 2009, Tom Brokaw traveled to Gander with several of the grateful Americans who are featured in the story.
The documentary originally aired on February 27, 2010, as part of NBC’s coverage of the Vancouver Olympics. NBC chose this story because it highlights the special relationship between Canadians and Americans and the grace and spirit and generosity of the Canadian people.
As a result of many requests from viewers, “Operation Yellow Ribbon” will be shown again this weekend (March 13-14) on MSNBC: Saturday at 12-1 p.m. ET and Sunday at 1-2 p.m. ET.
Viewers who wish to contact the people of Gander can reach out to the Town Hall Web site or to the local newspaper, the Gander Beacon.
Viewers interested in contributing to the scholarship fund can click here. Look for the “Give Wisely” bar and indicate the name of the fund (use “Gander”, “Lewisporte”, and/or “Flight 15”). Checks can be made out to “Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship” and mailed to The Columbus Foundation, 1234 E. Broad St., Columbus, OH 43205.