Rewind: The crash of 1946 tested the strength of our community

Rewind revisited the year 1946 not too many months ago, relating major events that struck this city in the early part of that watershed year, just a few months after the end of the Second World War. 

But there were several more major identifying events in the second-half of 1946 that made headlines in the Mercury, not the least of which was the tragic loss of 21 lives at the Estevan Airport. 

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The airport, located south of the city then, was quickly transitioning from being a Commonwealth Air Training School  to a more civilian-friendly outpost that would eventually provide residential housing and a branch of St. Joseph’s Hospital while still serving a very useful purpose as an airport with paved landing strips.

With the war over, there was a military order to return hundreds of leased training aircraft to their owners in the United States. To accomplish that task, a number of Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) pilots were assigned to ferry these planes to Fargo, North Dakota, then return in larger transport planes to pick up another batch and repeat the operations until all the aircraft that hadn’t been sold to the civilian market, were returned to the companies that had leased them out for operations in Estevan and at a few other nearby military training sites, such as the one near Outram, referred to in an earlier Rewind article. 

It was on Sept. 15 when 20 RCAF pilots and one groundcrew man in a Dakota transport plane, lost their lives in a horrendous crash in the northwest corner of the landing field. 

Dave Anderson, who was 14-years-old at the time, remembers the crash vividly as an eyewitness to the event.

“I was working in the field with my Dad. Our farm was three-quarters of a mile off Highway 47 just north of the airport. The airport took up a whole section, and I remember watching the survey teams crawling around all over the area just before they built the airport. We were living on the west side of the airport area at that time,” he recalled. 

On that fateful Sunday morning, Anderson said his father “hollered at me as he saw the plane coming in. It was a bit unusual since it was a bigger plane than the ones we were used to seeing.” 

By the time young Dave Anderson looked up, “it was already in flames, just a big ball of fire and then we lost sight of it as it banked behind the last hangar at the airport.” 

He knew, even at that tender age, the ferocity of the flames would mean that everyone in that plane, was gone. There would be no survivors. His supposition was correct. 

A few days later he remembered, “watching on the sidewalk as the two-ton trucks, big green trucks, carrying caskets, drove by as I stood near the Princess Café.” 

Twenty flag-draped coffins were the subject of reverent attention that day. One airman’s body had been returned to Hamilton, Ontario, earlier at the request of the family, since the airman’s mother was seriously ill. 

That crash was noted as Western Canada’s worst aviation tragedy ever and the second worst in Canadian aviation history, considering the number of people killed. 

Anderson’s recollections were backed up by articles in the Mercury, based on findings posted by the crash investigators. 

The accident had occurred at 10 a.m. and there were mostly only charred remains and the crash site was immediately cordoned off with only ambulances, fire trucks, doctors and air officers allowed in the area immediately following the crash. 

Early suggestions pointed to a starboard stabilizer lock that may not have been removed prior to the start of the flight, as the cause of the crash. Subsequent investigations confirmed this was probably the case, but it would never be positively known since there were no survivors in the twin-engined aircraft crash. 

The court of investigation was headed by Wing Commander J.J. McDonald (DFC); Squadron Leader Underhill and Squadron Leader Kirkcaldy from No. 2 Western Air Command headquartered in Winnipeg.

Others who had seen the plane approach, and had caught sight of it a bit earlier than Anderson and his father, said the approach to the Estevan landing strip appeared normal with the plane’s wheels lowered, but then suddenly the approach was aborted and the engines were opened up, seemingly with the intention of going around for a second try. But instead, the pilot lost control, resulting in the crash. Examination of what remained of the aircraft suggested the stabilizer had not been removed. Standard procedure requires positive evidence of its removal before takeoff. In this case, that would or should have occurred in Minot where the aircraft and pilots had spent the night due to a lack of accommodations in Estevan. 

“But since all lives in the aircraft were lost, a full explanation may never be gained,” said the report. 

A stabilizer is clamped on while the plane is on the ground, to prevent wind damage. That job is generally performed by the groundcrew member. 

The report stated that “normally, a pilot will check controls to ensure they are all moving freely. In this case, he could have moved the elevator slightly, enough for the pilot to believe it was all in order.” 

Pilots confirmed that a locked stabilizer would not seriously hamper the handling of the aircraft at takeoff.

But once airborne, the pilot would know the truth. He could gain some control of elevation by manually operating the trim tabs and throttle, but the main elevation control would be lost. 

The investigators suggested that since the plane was filled with pilots, they probably all conferred and agreed on an attempted landing rather than bailing out. In fact, the report suggested, they might have even shifted themselves to the back of the plane to try and bring the tail down for the landing which would be performed at a speed between 80 and 90 miles per hour. 

But, when it was determined at the last second, the landing couldn’t be made, and the engines were thrust back into full throttle, the nose of the plane probably went straight up, because of the weight in the back, and the plane stalled, thus causing the tragedy.

The ferrying service of the remaining 60 or so Cornell-type trainers back to Fargo continued days later, under much more somber conditions.

Other eye witnesses at the time, said they saw the plane gaining altitude before nosing over and diving into the ground, exploding into flames. What Anderson saw, was a plane, in the air that was already in flames, so that’s where his recollection deviates from others reported in the newspaper, but not to any great extent for concern. 

The airmen who were lost, were members of the No. 124 Communications Squadron from Rockcliffe, Ontario. Some of them were well known in the community and several had earned decorations of valour. The crash in Estevan was recognized as death while in the line of duty. 

Some relatives of the deceased managed to attend the military service in Estevan and a special military train brought 150 members of the RCAF Funeral Party and officers including Air Vice Marhsall K.M. Guthrie to Estevan. A dual service was conducted, including a Catholic mass and a Baptist funeral service in St. John the Baptist Church. There was a funeral service conducted at the airport and then a full military parade with honours as the 20 flag-draped caskets carried on the seven military trucks were rolled into the drill hall. 

The RCAF band played hymns for the parade outside the hall and the Mercury noted the cortege behind the seven trucks measured four miles long as the community turned out in droves to observe and reflect. The band continued with the Dead March of Saul for the slow march through the town to the railway station as the St. Giles Anglican Church bells tolled the grief of the community. 

Members of the Estevan and Bienfait Legion were involved in the military salute and local school children were allowed to attend. The trumpeter offered up the Last Post and Reveille, and a gun salute followed as the caskets were placed on the train for the bodies to be taken to their respective homes. 

In the aftermath, dozens of floral tributes were deposited at the city’s cenotaph and the RCAF extended its heartfelt thanks to Estevan, its administration and citizens for their co-operation, billeting of funeral party members and officers and transportation arrangements, which was no small feat seeing as how Estevan’s population at the time was just under 3,100, which meant an all-out effort would have been required. 

Anderson said that as he entered his teens, he remembered the skies over Estevan being constantly filled with aircraft. 

“We used to lie on our backs in the field and read the identification numbers and try to memorize them,” he said with a laugh. 

“Heck, I almost got hit by one that came down near the farm while we were out with a team of horses. He just barely cleared our fence and plowed into the mud close to the slough. We weren’t very far from there. The plane left a big rut and the wheel and wing ripped a hole in the ground. But that guy walked away from it. Another one though, witnessed by Mr. Lukye, went right nose down into the ground. He didn’t walk away,” said Anderson. 

Following this major crash, Anderson said he and his friends made their regular trip to the airport’s nuisance (landfill) grounds. Why? Well, he isn’t sure, but when you’re young and there are military spoils to explore and there are beacon lights dancing across the area, the spirit of adventure just takes control. 

“We saw those two big aluminum motors from that aircraft in the nuisance ground. They ended up there after the investigation. I could go back there right now and tell you where that nuisance ground was, and there was a very good berry patch there too,” he said with a smile. Other farmers would visit the airport nuisance grounds to ferret out debris from crashes to make chicken coops.  

Years earlier, Anderson said the arrival of the first big batch of airmen at the newly built airport to begin training, caused a bit of interest in the area. 

“They were all pretty well English guys, I’d say about 500 of them. The road into Estevan was just covered in blue as they all walked into Estevan to see what was there because the transportation guys had just dropped them off at the airport, and they were curious.”

Anderson also recalled helping dismantle one of the hangars, after the military left, and how good the lumber was. 

“They turned the H building into residences. I think they were pretty nice, but I heard there was a shortage of bathrooms. They held great dances there though.” 

Anderson, who attended Valley View School, eventually moved into Estevan, also recalled a childhood exploring the old underground coal mines, especially the gopher hole mines, where his father used to work on occasion. 

“I remember the Tisdale mine, it even had power for a cutting machine. My cousin and I got sent in to pick up the easy coal. We heard creaking and crashing and we got out. We didn’t like it at all. The guys just laughed at us.” 

Anderson remembered men with teams of horses and wagons coming in to pick up coal, staying overnight in a house built to accommodate them with a barn and hay provided for the horses. These were usually four-horse teams which would then haul the coal back to Torquay or other communities. 

“The direct road to Torquay was known as the town line. They hauled a lot of coal on that line. Maybe three tons at a time on two wagons. It took strong horses to do that,”  said Anderson who continues to admire the equine world.

It also took strong wills and strong faith to overcome adversities, but these experiences made men like Anderson and the community of Estevan, a lot stronger. 

© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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