If you were to talk to a pilot from Europe who flies to America, chances are they might not know much about the Portland International Jetport.
While “the Jetport” is the busiest airport in the State of Maine, and has gone from an airport with a once-risible name — given the lack of “jets” in the late 90s and early 2000s — to serving 1.7 million passengers last year, the only transatlantic flight it sees is the occasional jetBlue Airbus A321 arriving from the Airbus factory in Hamburg, Germany to refuel on its delivery flight. Though it plays an important role in the Maine economy, PWM is very much a domestic airport, and probably isn’t well-known outside the United States.
However, there is an airport in Maine that is very well-known by pilots all over Europe: Bangor International Airport. Yet how is an airport in a city of just 30,000 people so well-known by pilots on the other side of the pond?
There are a number of answers, but it really boils down to one factor: location. Situated on what used to be Dow Air Force Base, BGR is the first major airport that transatlantic flights arriving from Europe pass when entering the United States. Moreover, it has a runway which is 11,440 feet long and 200 feet wide — suitable to handle any aircraft, including the Antonov 225, the longest and heaviest aircraft ever built. It has on-premise U.S. Customs and Border Patrol facilities. Most importantly, it doesn’t have the congestion that airports in many major East Coast cities have. (Also, it has Dysart’s restaurant just down the road, home of the “buttery flaky crust” viral video and some of the best pie around.)
Decades of Visitors
In its heyday, Bangor had a number of regular foreign visitors. Back in the 60s and 70s, a lot of transatlantic aircraft didn’t have the range to fly non stop to Europe from places outside the Northeast. As such, Bangor was a popular stopover for flights between the United Kingdom and Florida. And while stopovers heading west were more common, as the jetstream poses a bigger challenge with headwinds on westbound flights, a number of flights would stop heading eastbound, too. Finnair even used Bangor as a scheduled stop on flights between the U.S. and Helsinki.
As aircraft became more fuel-efficient, and thus were able to make it non stop to their destinations, Bangor began to see less and less commercial service. The Boeing 757s, which stopped in Bangor with some regularity during the late 20th century, were replaced by larger aircraft with bigger fuel tanks, eliminating the need to “gas and go” en route with such frequency as before.
Another common reason that international flights stop in Bangor has nothing to do with fuel. Over the years, a number of transatlantic flights have diverted to Bangor due to unruly passengers, medical emergencies, and security concerns, particularly with vigilance at an all-time high after the September 11 attacks. These types of diversions aren’t as common as they once were, such as the time when two England-originating flights bound for Mexico — a British Airways 747 to Mexico City and a Brittania 767 to Cancun — diverted to Bangor hours apart due to unrelated cases of unruly passenger, but they do still occur from time to time.
The decline of security diversions didn’t mean the end of transatlantic flights taking off from and landing in Bangor, though. During the Iraq War, Bangor became a major stopover point for troop flights, both those heading overseas and arriving home. A number of carriers and aircraft operated these flights, including American Trans Air 757s, Omni Air International 767s, and World Airways McDonnell-Douglas MD-11s.
In fact, the Maine Troop Greeters — a group of volunteer veterans and civilians alike — who has greeted every (or at least it seems like every) troop flight, whether it arrives in the middle of the night or in time for noontime lobster rolls. I find their mission to be extremely admirable, and I certainly salute the work that they do to make sure our troops know how much they are appreciated. The group was subject of a 2006 documentary, The Way We Get By, which won several awards. I watched it earlier this year on YouTube, where it is available to watch for $1.99. Highly recommended.
Weathering the Storm
When there is a bad storm at a flight’s destination, the natural inclination is to delay the flight, or — if necessary — cancel it. Sometimes, however, bad weather sneaks up while an aircraft is en route, or weather conditions which weren’t great but seemed stable enough end up deteriorating significantly in a short period of time. Often times, this can result in a diversion.
That’s where Bangor comes in. Given its lack of congestion, which allows aircraft to arrive without having to sit in a holding pattern for an extensive period of time, and its excellent snow removal team, BGR is open during (pretty much) all weather, making it a prime location for weather-related diversions.
The Current Situation
Even as the years have gone on and newer, more efficient planes have taken over intercontinental routes that were once covered by gas-guzzlers, Bangor still sees a number of transatlantic flights.
From the beginning of the month (December 1, 2017) to today (December 14, 2017), Bangor had 24 transatlantic arrivals — including three today alone. Last month, a Delta Air Lines 747-400 (operating a charter) even arrived from Frankfurt. Most of these flights are business jets arriving from Western Europe headed for the Midwest, South, or West Coast, although some do make their stop heading eastbound, too. These planes have the “legs” to cross the Atlantic, but — unlike airliners with large fuel tanks — need to gas up before heading to their final destination. Anecdotally speaking, I usually observe at least a few transatlantic arrivals (often more) per week on FlightAware.
In addition to private jets and charter flights refueling, a number of commercial flights arriving from Europe have had to refuel in Bangor in recent times. Uncharacteristically strong headwinds in the last few years have caused a number of westbound transatlantic flights to divert, most of them flown by the Boeing 757 — a narrow body aircraft whose range is significantly less than wide bodies like the 767 and A330.
This year, after seeing on FlightAware that an American 757-200 was to arrive in Bangor from Manchester, England, I made the trip up to Bangor to see it touch down. As a kid, I had always wanted to see a transatlantic arrival at BGR — better late than never, I guess?
Every commercial flight has to select an “alternate” airport in case something doesn’t go to plan. If you’ve been (or will be) on a flight from Europe to the United States, there’s a good chance your alternate was (or will be) Bangor. And should you ever have to land there, see if they have any Dysart’s raspberry pie available. You won’t regret it!