At one time, it was easy to discover when Labrador’s annual low-level flying season had begun. All you had to do was sleep soundly somewhere in Happy Valley-Goose Bay at between four and five o’clock in the morning.
If you were violently woken up by a house-shaking roar, you’d know there were foreign fighter planes warming up on the airbase tarmac, getting ready to take off into the big skies to cavort among the wild hills and dales.
The planes once provided quite a popular show. There are several places around town that afford views over the runways and people would gather at them to watch the passing hardware. The highest point in the area accessible by car — and so one that’s frequented even when military planes aren’t flying — is a hill with a communications installation west of the base. From there, jets could be seen approaching from all directions and all the runways were laid out clearly below the spectators.
In Happy Valley-Goose Bay itself, the north end of Hamilton River Road skirts the top of the eastern escarpment and this has always been a popular spot to park because one of the main runways points straight at it. Any aircraft taking off eastwards or swooping in westwards to land will pass directly overhead — low and loud.
The closest vantage point (which is why the Innu chose it to stage their long-running protests against low-level flying) is right on the old Canadian side taxi-way, which is only separated from the current operating runways by a chainlink fence — a fence that saw a lot of use during the protests. From there, you could get an unimpeded look at thousands of sorties coming and going every day.
Even if you didn’t see any planes, you couldn’t go around central Labrador without finding out that the flying season had started.
In a matter of a couple weeks, the population of the region more than doubled.
Young pilots and other military personnel from several countries would settle in for the warm months and get to know their host towns, bringing considerable commerce to the local economy and often making fast friends with their summer neighbours.
For these reasons and many others, there’s no doubt low-level flying has been keenly missed, even by the Innu Nation. After all, the Labrador Innu rose to their current political strength by opposing the training, but would now likely welcome it for the prosperity it could help bring back.
That should not be surprising, as the business the air forces and their personnel previously brought to Labrador had once largely supported every club, restaurant, store, outfitter and service provider in the upper Lake Melville region. Business has just not been the same since the last of the low-level fliers — the Germans, that is — left 5 Wing Goose Bay.
Now they’re back, but it’s taken a little while for people to notice, since they haven’t been announcing themselves with a bang first thing in the morning. That’s because they’re not putting hundreds of F4 Phantoms and Panavia Tornados up into the air every day.
So far, the Luftwaffe has only sent 30 fliers to take a handful of big transports to the remote flying ranges, but the Germans say this may only be a start. It’s a small group, and it’s only in Labrador for a short while, but it’s particularly notable — not just because the Germans are back, but because of why they returned.
Just as it wasn’t the protests against low-level training that ended it, it’s not any government campaign that returned it to life.
Back in the last decade, the Germans were the last to remain at 5 Wing Goose Bay as the cost of training in Labrador rose to exceed its value. Since then, the Luftwaffe has been looking everywhere for a cheaper training ground, but they failed to find one.
That gives a lot of hope to the local economy. It means that even if this federal government (like the last one) does nothing but talk about supporting 5 Wing, chances are now better that the base’s intrinsic value will pull it through all by itself.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.