The story of our PBY 5A Canso

The following story is quoted from Sentinel: Magazine of the Canadian Forces. It was written by  former Museum member Mike Whitehead and published in the third quarter issue of 1987. This quote covers the recovery operation of the Canso. The museum plans to restore the aircraft over a period of 15 years. Ultimately, the aircraft will be repainted in the colors of EPA, to look like the day she crashed in the Labrador wilderness.

Old Bird Placed Under Museum’s Wing

Eastern Provincial Airways’ Canso CF-HFL touched down somewhat behind schedule last fall at Goose Bay, Labrador.  In fact, it took her 29 years and 29 days to complete her 233-kilometer flight from Sona Lake.  The ‘flying boat’ started her return trip after delivering fuel on Oct. 1, 1957 to an isolated communications site at Sona Lake. Her three-man crew had been watching dusk overtake the vast Labrador wilderness when, suddenly, about 80 kilometers from her destination, both engines began losing power. The port engine rapidly gave out. Distress calls were sent.  The pilots desperately tried to nurse his other still serviceable – but fading – engine long enough to reach a large lake he had seen below.  The power plant failed, however, and a landing in the trees became inevitable.

The big amphibian mushed through treetops, bounced off a marsh, then struggled briefly back into the air until her starboard wing struck a small copse of pines.  The aircraft slewed around in a violent about-face the left the shaken but unhurt crew sighting along the path from which they’d come. The crew was reached the following day by a rescue float plane and soon the investigation team arrived to assess the Canso. Her leading edge was chopped by the trees, her hull was wrinkled and her props were bent.  The last ground loop had bent her port wing tip and cracked her spar.  The aircraft was written off.  Her cockpit was stripped and she was left to the wilderness.  For almost  three decades she lay in the bush – her paint work fading and her huge fabric surfaces slowly deteriorating.

In early 1986, however, the old plane was donated to the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum in Halifax, NS.  Realizing that this aircraft was an important representative of Atlantic Canada’s  rich aviation heritage, museum staff began to arrange a recovery operation.  It was apparent that the only aircraft capable of lifting an object the size and weight of Canso and carrying it to Goose Bay was a Canadian Forces CH-147 Chinook helicopter. After more then six months of communications among representatives of the museum, The Department of National Defense and the Canadian Transport Commission, the recovery project was approved. It was deemed worthwhile both as a training exercise and as an effort to assist a worthy cause.  A Chinook from 450 Transport Helicopter Squadron in Ottawa would carry out the lift on a regular deployment to Goose Bay.

Air Nova – Air Canada’s Maritime subsidiary – provided free passes for a three-man museum team to fly to Goose Bay.  On the way, they picked up Canso maintenance equipment courtesy of the Newfoundland government’s water bomber fleet in St. John’s. The three days preceding the lift saw much activity at the crash site.  Rescue Flight Twin Hueys from CFS Goose Bay ferried equipment and personnel to the aircraft it was prepared for recovery. The Canso’s engines were removed to reduce weight.  The fabric which covered the trailing third of the wing and all the control surfaces was stripped to reduce aerodynamics.  Loose equipment was removed and landing gear was strapped firmly in the full retract position.  The ice and frozen earth that held the hull were chopped clear.  Meanwhile, members of a Tactical Air Movements team from 2 Service Battalion in Petawawa labored to prepare the huge lifting slings.

Finally, on the third afternoon, everything was ready.  As Hueys and civilian helicopters hovered about – recording the event on film – the giant Chinook roared into position.  The ground  crew retreated to a safe distance as two TAMs men, buffeted by the downwash, made the hook-up.

Slowly, the big tandem rotor rose, taking the strain.  The slings – which had been ‘accordioned’ (folded and tied with breakaway cord) on top of the wing – deployed perfectly.  The Canso’s 31 -meter wings leveled and began to rise.

The Chinook has a maximum capacity of more then 9,000 kilograms.  On the first attempt,  the pilots’ digital “skyweight” – readout rose to well over 8,550 kilograms.  At this point, several unrelated factors combined to benefit the operation. The engines, though removed, had not been moved from the immediate vicinity of the aircraft.  As the Canso rose, it swung slightly and struck one of the engines, tearing a small gash in the aircraft’s hull.  The temperature was uncommonly high the day of the lift, melting several hundred kilograms of ice hidden under the floor boards.  Water now cascaded out of the gash, considerably lightening the aircraft.  The pilots decided to reduce their weight even further and gently rested the load back on the snow, hovering to burn off their own fuel.

At last the pilots were satisfied.  The Chinook’s rotors bit the air.  The old bird slowly lifted, obediently swung around and began to follow the Chinook home.  The crew commented later that, even with a good portion of the wing surface removed, the Canso generated approximately 2,000 kilograms of lift as the pair moved forward into the clear air. The faded, battered old aircraft was a fascinating sight as she felt the slipstream again after so many years.  With her faded white paint, skeletal ribs bare and strips of torn fabric fluttering in the  wing, she moved slowly over the snowy landscape, as one pilot said, “not unlike a ghost!”

Since that day, museum staff have been dismantling the aircraft to prepare her for shipment to Halifax for restoration.

The Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum is grateful to the Canadian Forces for their assistance and support.  In particular, it thanks the pilots and crews of Goose Bay’s Twin Hueys and 450 Sqn’s Chinook ‘007′, without whose skill and enthusiasm an old bird would rest still in the Labrador wilderness.

PBY-5A (Bu05021): The Story

ACAM’s aircraft did not see service in the Canadian Military. It was not built under the Canadian contracts or constructed in Canada.

Our PBY-5A (Bu05021) was built by Consolidated’s San Diego plant and was accepted by the USN on Feb 27th, 1942. It was part of a second batch of 134 aircraft ordered on November 25th, 1940. Since only 1418 Amphibian PBY’s were built, to the best of our knowledge, our PBY-5A is the oldest PBY-5A in existence!

Military Service Summary:

  • Bu05021 was delivered to the Transition Training Squadron Pacific at San Diego on March 1st, 1942.
  • Assigned to Commander Patrol Wings Atlantic on March 11th, 1942.
  • Reassigned to NAS Pensacola on March 17th, 1942.
  • On Feb. 27th, 1943 she was assigned to NAS Alameda.
  • Assigned to NPG (Naval Proving Ground) Dahlgren on April 10th, 1943.
  • Sept. 1st, 1943 transferred to the Atlantic Fleet at Norfolk.
  • Assigned to ComAirLant on Nov. 18th, 1943.
  • The period from November 1943 to September 30th 1944 remains a mystery. During this period, it was apparently based at NAS Norfolk, Va. This would have been an active period for all US Navy patrol aircraft during the war, the U-Boat fleets were starting to lie off the US East coast and our aircraft could have participated on these patrols against this threat. This part of the aircraft’s history remains a mystery, which requires further investigation.
  • On November 22nd 1944 05021 was received by Hedron-2 FAW-5
  • In January 1945, it was transferred to the U.S Coast Guard. She was stationed at CGAS Miami Florida, until July 1945 when she was flown to NAS Seattle where she was stricken off the Navy’s list on Jan. 31st, 1946.

Civilian Service Summary:

  • After service as Bu05021, this PBY-5A was first registered on the USCAR as NC18444 and saw service on the US West Coast with California Maritime Airlines of Long Beach, California.
  • After the failure of CMA, AeroCorp acquired it.
  • Later sold to Caribbean International, in the Bahamas, where it flew as VP-BAR until approximately August 1950.
  • It was then transferred to the Jamaican register as VP-JAU in the following February.
  • It was then sold to Dominion of Canada Aircraft Brokers (becoming CF-HFL) who sold it to Eastern Provincial Airlines in November 1953. CF-HFL now had a new career supplying remote locations in Eastern Canada. (To read more about this period of CF-HFL’s career I recommend you get a copy of The Little Airline That Could! which tells the story of EPA and it is available from the Museum gift shop!). It was during one of these supply missions that it met its presumed demise.

On October 1st, 1957 CF-HFL was returning to Goose Bay, Labrador after supplying diesel fuel to an isolated communications site. Suddenly, about 50 miles out both engines started to fail, the port engine rapidly gave out followed by the starboard just as a suitable lake was found. The plane crashed through treetops, bounced off a marsh then struggled back six feet into the air until her starboard wing struck a small copse of pines. This caused the aircraft to slew around in a violent way turning the aircraft into the direction it had just come. The crew spent a long night in the woods and was rescued the following day by a floatplane. Due to damage caused by the crash, the aircraft was written off and stripped of any usable parts and the airframe was left.

In early 1986 the aircraft, now owned by airline pilot Captain Lionel Clark, was offered to the Museum. The hard work of recovering and restoring the PBY was yet to come.