Here is a story for you, your children and grandchildren. Ross Binnie's account of events is a facinating glimpse from the 1950's about flying in the arctic, that will keep you spellbound to the last word.
It is a departure from the standard material on our Blog, but this story is great and needs to be shared with the world to read. It is a long story and I suggest you copy and paste it into something like a word document so you can read the story at your leisure. Remember to give credit to "Captain Binnie".
In the 1950s I was a Flight Engineer for Maritime Central Airways. The airline had a contract with the Foundation Company of Canada to fly cargo to various locations in Canada’s arctic regions during construction of the DEW Line (Distant Early Warning Line). It was at the height of the Cold War. The United States built a radar line across the Canadian arctic & Alaska to warn of a possible Soviet invasion. There were no long-range air navigation aids at that time and in the Arctic regions east west navigation by magnetic compass was almost impossible. There were however low power radio beacons at each DEW line airstrip in the region.
For a time, MCA operated a scheduled flight from Frobisher (now Iqaluit), Northwest Territories that traveled east and then turned west along a line well above the Arctic Circle using a C47 (a cargo version of a DC3) aircraft. The flight was a mixture of passengers and some small cargo. Two crewmembers were stationed at Frobisher for this service.
One summer morning, the captain fell ill and there was no qualified MCA pilot available to take the flight. The MCA Northern Operations Manager accepted the offer of a non-MCA pilot to take the flight that day. Flight conditions at Frobisher were ‘Fair’ but heavy overcast was noted at various points along the eastern path of the flight. At that time Wind conditions were a 'best guess' situation from the weather boys.
The flight was late leaving Frobisher but made its first eastern leg landing without problem. The next site was heavily overcast and although the pilot made a pass at the runway he aborted the landing and proceeded in the direction of his next (and last) eastern destination. The crew was unable to locate the radio beacon and the flight turned west in an attempt to complete the western portion of the flight. Flight Operations were made aware of the flight problems by the crew’s radio reports.
The flight was unable to find the next westward destination too and it became obvious that they were lost. The best anyone could come up with was they had been blown off course. During one radio conversation the crew reported that one of the ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) radios had also failed and they were not receiving any navigation signals. About an hour before the flight would run out of fuel the crew radioed that they had found clear sky and tried to give some idea of where they were.
All anyone could figure was they were still over Baffin Island. Shortly before they would have been forced to crash the crew reported they were over a lake with a long spit of land running into it from one end. They also said they were going to try a wheels up landing on the spit. At that point communication was lost. At the time Canada did not have any good maps of the interior of Baffin Island. The best map MCA flight operations had did however show a lake on western Baffin Island that was the general shape of the lake reported by the now downed aircraft. The US Navy had Neptune Radar Picket aircraft based at Frobisher and dispatched one to look for our downed C47. The Neptune had a good speed and by the time we had a rescue flight in the air the Navy reported they had found the C47 and everyone appeared to be OK but could not make radio contact.
At the time I was a flight engineer on a Canso amphibian aircraft (a Canadian version of the US PBY5A) posted to Frobisher. The Canso was dispatched to the crash scene in the hope that we could land on the lake and rescue everyone from the C47. When we arrived at the crash sight we attempted to look at the water depth from a height of a few hundred feet but couldn’t see anything. So the captain made an approach over the intended touch down area and I looked out from the rear of the aircraft into the water looking for problems. Just as were about to touch down I spotted some rocks just below the surface and screamed ROCKS! The captain pulled up and I went forward to report that I had seen a number of rocks just below the surface. We then landed on the opposite side of the sand spit only to find we were in very shallow water and the bottom kept dragging on the sand.
I put out the anchor and attempted to float a rubber dinghy into the shore where the passengers and crew were waiting. The wind was stiff and I just couldn’t get the dinghy to go in the right direction so jumped into the water and dragged the boat to shore. Then I dragged a rope back to the aircraft to tow the boat to the Canso. It wasn’t long until everyone was onboard the Canso. While this was going on I took a walk along the beach as well as inspecting the downed C47. Our captain also took a look at the situation. We both commented on the fact the emergency supplies on board the C47 had been broken into and things were scattered about.
A short digression into how a large amphibian is taxied about on water. With both engines running at idle, the craft can be maneuvered by opening one or the other throttle and using the rudder too. Of course opening a throttle adds speed to the craft and things can get out of hand. To overcome this, experienced crew lowers the landing gear to add drag. Of course one needs sufficient water under the hull to do this. Our captain had lowered the landing gear in an attempt to control the craft and the main gear hit bottom. When this happens the pins that secure the hydraulic cylinders to the landing gear shear off. That is what happened to us on that day.
Canso/PBY flight engineers are familiar with this problem and carry spare pins. On that day I had only one spare pin and 2 broken pins on the landing gear. I replaced the one pin and with the help of some rope and the copilot we attempted to drag the second gear into the wheel well. One of the passengers lent a hand and we secured the gear into place and tied it there. The anchor had been deployed too but when I tried to heave it on board found it stuck in the sand. All attempts at freeing the anchor failed and in the end I had to hacksaw the cable through and leave the anchor behind.
When we tried to take off we found the hull was dragging on the bottom and we could not get the machine on the step IE to plane like a boat. After several attempts we moved as many of the passengers as possible to the front and told everyone that when told they would have to move rearward again. We weren’t rigged for passengers so most had to sit on the hull and hull stringers. Not comfortable but better than a crashed C47! It was obvious we didn’t have enough space for takeoff with the bottom dragging so we taxied in circles until we got up some speed and straightened out. As we gained momentum the hull gradually came onto the step and we began to plane.
I yelled at everyone to move aft and we cleared land by only a small margin! As we neared Frobisher I worried about getting the landing gear down with the rope attached. I had never lowered the gear this way and it turned out neither had the Captain or Co-pilot. No one in flight ops had any experience with this maneuver either. I was told to make my own decision and I did. It turned out to be the wrong one (cut the rope)! When I did this the gear fell straight down with a terrible bang then bounced up and down a few times before settling into the down position. I was able to push the down lock over center and the landing gear indicator showed down and locked. After landing I spent a lot of time inspecting the main gear for structural damage and had some minor repair made to the nose gear door lock. That repair came back to haunt us all some time later. I reported what damage I had observed as well as ground conditions at the crash site.
I returned to our main base in Mont Joli while the powers that be decided what to do next. While there I stole 2 under carriage pins and put them in my toolbox. As it turned out I was to need them soon. Upon returning to Frobisher I learned that a second C47 was to fly to the crash site with a repair crew and parts to repair the damaged C47. I was perfectly happy to give anyone who would listen the benefit of my years of inexperience and offered the opinion that attempting to land next to the downed C47 could be a disaster as the sand there was soft. Instead I suggested landing along the beach where the sand was firm albeit on somewhat of a side slope.
The second C47 touched down on high ground close to the downed C47 and at the end of roll out tipped on its nose tossing repair crew and cargo about. The plane sustained some damage too. Now there were 2 damaged C47s and a bunch of people stranded in the middle of a god-forsaken part of Baffin Island. No one was injured and it wasn’t long until all of the gear was on the sand.
With 2 crashed C47s MCA had a hole in it’s operating fleet. There were several discussions among the senior staff about what to do with the crew at the crash site and how to re-supply them. It was obvious that the only way to land at the crash site was on water. It was also obvious (to me) that water landing was also a formula for one more crash. In the end we were told we have to take the Canso to the site with more supplies. I pointed out that one side of the lake was very shallow and the other side had rocks just under the surface. In return I was reminded that if I didn’t want to go I could look for a job somewhere else.
The Canso was loaded with Cargo and we took off for what we had now named FUBAR Lake. Our (new (er)) captain opted to land on the rocky side of the lake and we promptly struck a rock as we taxied in toward shore. The captain tried to lower the landing gear and applied full power in an attempt to gain the hard ground. The attempt failed. 2 broken landing gear pins and a hole in the bottom of our plane. We settled with about 2 ½’ of water in the hull. I admit I was a real pr**k about the whole business and complained to everyone about the mess. My survival gear had remained above water and I lugged it ashore and set up a tent away from everyone else where I sat and sulked. Everyone else bunked down in the crashed aircraft but I knew just how damp and miserable the inside of those planes would be and stayed in my tent. A small Primus stove kept me warm until the fuel ran out. I tried aviation gas but it just clogged the burner assembly after a few minutes operation.
We tried to find the hole in the hull with our bare feet so we could try to plug the leak but weren’t successful. Frobisher agreed to fly over and air drop some supplies to us. A cargo parachute was found somewhere and it was attached to a gasoline powered pump for pumping out the Canso. Air bottles were free dropped from one of our Avro York aircraft. It seems I was asleep when all this happened and one of the air bottles hit the ground on one side of my tent and skipped over the top missing me but I didn’t know a thing about it. When I was told about it I thought it was just another tall tale but several people told me it really happened.
In time the first damaged C47 was raised using air bags and trenches were dug in front of the undercarriage to allow the gear to be lowered. With brute force the plane was dragged onto level ground. A new propeller was installed and one oil cooler replaced. The under carriage was secured in place with angle iron and the control console was braced with 2X4s. Control cables were re rigged and we had one aircraft ready to go. The second C47 needed far less work and was soon ready for take off. We floated the pump out to the Canso and fired it up. A steady stream of water overboard soon dropped the level inside. While this was going on I fitted the 2 new gear pins but had to wait until we had hydraulic pressure and deep water to finish the installation.
It was our captain who found the hole in the hull. We dropped sandbags over the hole and continued pumping. As soon as the hull was floating we taxied into deep water and the gear was lowered and locked in place then we turned and headed for shore under full power. We just made it onto the beach and more or less bogged in soft wet sand but we were clear of the water. The sheet metal people made a temporary repair over the hole. The nose gear doors looked as though they might not lock and I worried they wouldn’t close and lock properly for water take off. The captain said so what, we were not going to try a land take off so live with it! When all seemed to be done that was doable we split up all of the gear between the 3 aircraft with the bulk of the people loaded onto the Canso.
The first C47 took off and we all worried that it might bog in the sand but it lifted off without any difficulty. The second C47 seemed to have a bit of a struggle at first but it too lifted off and went on its way. We fired up and when we tried to taxi it seemed as though we wouldn’t move in the sand but started to move and we rolled into the water using almost full power. As soon as were in deeper water the captain raised the gear. The nose gear doors would not lock in the closed position and although the gear was cycled several times the doors simply would not lock in place. In the end 2 of us inserted a steel bar into the door operating mechanism and braced the doors in the closed position with our feet on take off. I never thought there must be a better way to make a living, it was just part of the job.
I was a very brash young man back then and I had earned the nickname of Captain Binnie because every aircraft I flew on became ‘My Airplane’. I am still brash although considerably older now. Back then I wanted travel & adventure. I found both. The above is just one small part of what I have experienced over the years.
The above story is true, nothing has been added. Some things have been left out. There can only be a small handful of people alive today who still remember these events.
by Ross Binnie, Kearney, ON
Canadian Airline Blog
Wed, Jul 20 2011 5:19 PM
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