Rescuing History
© 2009 FrontLine Security (Vol 4, No 4)

A small town in Alberta’s Peace Country, already the site of one of the oldest and most northerly community colleges in the province, is now hoping to make history of a different kind – with a very special ­vintage airplane.

Canso Recovery Crew, from left: Joey Gans, Norbert Luken, Brian Wilson, Won Wieben, Doug Roy and Henry Dechant.

The dream is to restore a derelict Canso PBY5A – an amphibious flying boat that was used extensively by the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. Why this particular aircraft? That is where the luck in this particular project began.

Originally built by Boeing and called the Catalina, over 3,000 of the airplanes were built during World War II, 800 of them in Canada, under license to Vickers and Canadair. The Canadian planes were dubbed the Canso. The Canadian Government converted them to water bombers after the war. Only 30 or so now remain in the world, 26 of them flying.

Don Wieben was in Red Deer one day, watching several Cansos being sold by ­Buffalo Airways to out-of-country buyers. Wieben, who had recently restored a Beech 18, remarked that one Canso should stay in Canada for historical reasons. Then, to his surprise, he was told there was one he could buy, if he was interested – sitting on the ground 250 km inside the Arctic Circle. Getting it from its resting place on the shore of a lake near Inuvik – then transporting it 2,200 km south to the town of Fairview – was going to be a considerable challenge, but Wieben was excited by the prospect.

His son found some aerial pictures on the internet of the plane on the edge of Sitidgi Lake. It had been there since 2000, after having sunk in 90 feet of water during a test water pickup. Buffalo Air had lifted it to shore and salvaged the plane’s engines, which could be used on its fleet of DC-3s.

That picture immediately got Wieben’s next door neighbour Joe Gans interested, and he offered to travel north with Wieben to recover the plane. Three other men, Brian Wilson, Doug Roy and Henry Dechant joined the group soon after, followed by Norbert Luken. All but Luken are in their 60s and most had helped Wieben restore his Beech 18 a few years earlier.

Built in 1943, the Canso PBY5A had been used as a patrol bomber during World War II. This particular aircraft, RCAF 11094, was based on the east coast during the war and often flew from Reykjavik, Iceland, seeking out submarines which were threatening convoys sailing across the Atlantic. It carried gunners and depth charges.

Amazingly, one of the pilots of this ­particular Canso lives in Nova Scotia and is keen to see the aircraft restored. John McRae of 162 Squadron flew the plane on three operations, totaling about 33 hours. He is grateful to know that the plane he flew ­during his last operational flight of the war is being preserved. “I’ve tried to keep track of all the Cansos. They’re an important story in Canada.”

McRae has his logbooks and many wartime photos of the Icelandic base and the Cansos which flew from there. He remarked that the plane was heavy on the controls and it took a lot of effort to move the ailerons, but he enjoyed flying the ungainly-looking aircraft. “You get attached to them,” he chuckles.

Wieben confessed that the Canso recovery presented challenges, even before the men began to seriously look at rescuing it. For one thing, the Alberta Aviation Museum had expressed an interest in it. For another, it was in a very remote area and although there were still some spare parts available, they wouldn’t know how much restoration was possible until it was professionally assessed.

As it turned out, the Museum decided the Canso was too expensive to move and pulled out of the running. Wieben then bought the plane “as is, where is” for what he still considers a reasonable price.

Plane on display in Fairview.

With those details out of the way, the “Canso Crew” began their research, locating the lake on Google Earth and examining ­aerial photographs of the plane on the edge of the lake.

Getting it out would not be a simple task, even if the plane had not been 40 km from the nearest road. The airplane 63 feet long, with a 104 ft. single wing mounted above the fuselage.

Described by Wieben as an “ugly duckling,” or a “cross between an alligator and an albatross,” the Canso sits close to the ground on three nitrogen filled tires, so looks less daunting than it might. Since it was without engines or propellers, the plane would have to be towed to the nearest road and trucked the remainder of the way.

Their first challenge was to move the plane from the north shore of the lake. The easiest way to do that was to tow it along the length of the frozen lake in winter, and then pull it overland to the Dempster Highway.

The men soon discovered that any extraction process had problems they had never considered. Regulations required them to use machinery that would not damage the tundra. Luck was with them, however, as the owner of a seismograph service company in Fairview offered them the loan of a special light track machine used in the north, called a Yanmar, in exchange for a future favour – a ride in the restored aircraft.

At 10,000 lbs, the U.S.-made Yanmar was almost the same weight as the stripped down Canso. Would it be up to the task? They had to find a way to move the plane across the frozen lake in winter. They couldn’t move it on wheels across deep snow, and they didn’t want to remove them. Skis or a sled seemed the most logical means. Don Wieben had the perfect skis. He called on the welder of the group to connect two sets of his Beech skis together into 16 foot units that could be attached to the wheel assembly of the Canso.

Part of the crew headed north to Inuvik and hired an Inuit guide to take them to the lake. For two weeks they camped out in temperatures which dipped to –35°C.

Two more of the team arrived and their biggest concern was moving the plane over the frozen lake before it began to thaw.

The snow was deep and they discovered they needed more pulling power. They borrowed a local Snow Cat from Inuvik – and again the owner asked for no more than the promise of a ride in the restored Canso.

No one seemed worried that the full restoration might not be possible. Although at first the move had been deemed impossible, once the Canso Crew arrived, the local tribal council gave ­permission to cross their lands and were very helpful, Wieben remarked.

Moving the plane was difficult, even with the Snow Cat. Fortunately, as Wieben explained, the wings were set high and vegetation that far north was low and sparse, so they didn’t have to cut many trees.

Video footage of the old airplane being towed across the ice – then finally arriving at the other end, is impressive. It was an emotionally-charged success. The crew is seen cheering and giving each other well-deserved pats on the back.

They reached their goal, the Dempster Highway, just ahead of the thaw. More good luck came into play when a local transportation company offered them yard storage for a few months – if they could tow the plane to the Mackenzie River. They did so, but had to trim a damaged part of the wing off so that the plane would clear the hydro poles on either side of the highway. The Department of Highways shut down portions of the road as they traveled. In April 2008, after rolling it onto a river barge, the plane was transported to the yard. Six months later, the plane was rolled back onto a barge again and taken to Hay River – and the men began to plan how they would transport the plane the rest of its journey to Fairview, in the spring of 2009.

Once again, they received a great deal of support. A Grande Prairie oilfield company offered a special extensible, double drop trailer – and a driver for as long as they needed him – to carry the plane’s fuselage. Wieben’s son was to drive a flatbed truck carrying the long wing section.

However, the journey south was an unusual one. Since the plane was still wider than 30 feet, they needed pilot cars, and once again, sections of highway had to be closed all the way to Fairview. “Everyone we met was phenomenal.”

With the plane now safely in Fairview, the real work begins. There are spare Canso parts in Buffalo Airways’ yard in Red Deer, and the group has a shopping list with about $19,000 worth of parts.

The big remaining challenge, according to Wieben, is damage to the number 4 bulkhead in the pylon area. It was damaged in the accident and finding parts and expertise to repair it will be very difficult. He feels that if it can’t be repaired, they might be able to restore the plane to be a static display only. And even if the repairs can be done, the total cost of restoring the plane to flying condition could be as much as $400,000. Collecting that kind of money will need more than luck and moral support. The size of the aircraft – and its engines – is daunting, Wieben admits.

However, when it’s completed, no matter to what level, Fairview’s airstrip will become the new home for a very unique plane. If it can be restored to flying condition, the Canso will travel between air shows in the west, as another already does from Ontario’s Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. The Fairview Canso Crew also want their aircraft to make one historic flight – as yet undetermined.

Wieben feels the plane can contribute something to the current concern over Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. “This plane has the ability to fly from one side of the Arctic to the other without refueling.”

Although it has a relatively low cruising speed of just 201 kph, the Canso had a range of 2,500 miles. It could stay in the air for up to 25 hours before having to refuel, a quality that made it excellent for patrolling the dangerous seas of the north Atlantic. Most patrols ranged from 14-16 hours, according to McRae. That’s plenty of time to traverse the length of Canada’s Arctic, Wieben notes.

Recently, the sight of that historic, somewhat worse for wear old bird, sitting on an old railway right-of-way in Fairview, was priceless. It has galvanized the town and the college – and attracted attention far and wide. The CBC conducted a radio interview, as did the local Peace River radio station.

The aircraft’s fuselage has now been moved into a hanger and will be worked on by the Canso Crew over the next months and years. The wing is being stored and restored ­separately.

It is perhaps no accident that the men involved in the Canso project have lived in Fairview all their lives, and all have attended Fairview College at one time or another. Although most took agriculture-related courses, the main reason the college was opened in 1951, some have also taken night courses, which are offered in great variety.

If farmers can become aviation mechanics – or anything else, the college can help make that happen. It offers a range of programs for a new or second career – or upgrading of existing skills. The college is fortunate to have the support of many equipment manufacturers, ensuring that its instructors have well-stocked workshops and up to date equipment for students to practice on. That expertise may yet be useful for restoring the Canso.

Community cooperation and participation has always been important to the college, so the Canso was an honoured guest at a recent celebration marking the college’s merger with Grande Prairie Regional College.

Was anyone in Fairview surprised to see six local men haul a historic plane into town from the Arctic Circle? Perhaps, but now that it’s in Fairview, its progress will be eagerly followed.

And you can bet that whatever challenges remain will be met head on by the town, the college and the citizens – together.

Beverley Candy, Coordinator,
Fairview College Campus
Box 3000
Fairview, AB T0H 1L0
© FrontLine Security 2009