Articles

“The toughest flying country in the world”

That’s how veteran pilots describe British Columbia’s “graveyard of lost planes.” In sixteen years it’s claimed a hundred and seventeen lives. But we're licking its hazards with science, discipline and experience

RAY GARDNER January 4 1958
Articles

“The toughest flying country in the world”

That’s how veteran pilots describe British Columbia’s “graveyard of lost planes.” In sixteen years it’s claimed a hundred and seventeen lives. But we're licking its hazards with science, discipline and experience

RAY GARDNER January 4 1958

From the air the snow - capped blue - green Coast and Cascade mountains that sweep across southern British Columbia appear like giant petrified waves, giving the effect of an angry sea that has suddenly been turned to stone. Like a storm-swept ocean, they too seem boundless and implacable.

Jagged peaks, thrusting five to nine thousand feet into the sky, whip the high Pacific winds into a turmoil powerful enough to toss about even a huge airliner should one come within its grasp. Pilots of light aircraft that dart through the mountain passes must know, almost intuitively, when to turn back or run the risk of becoming trapped in cloud-filled valleys with no way out.

One patch of this unbroken wilderness, four to five thousand square miles in area and lying between Vancouver and the Okanagan Valley city of Penticton, has achieved so terrible a reputation as the scene of air disasters that some British Columbians speak of it as "the graveyard of lost planes.”

During the past sixteen years its mountain spires have brought down twenty aircraft. In fifteen of these crashes one hundred and seventeen people have been killed; in the other five there was no loss of life. Three of these planes and their eight occupants vanished without trace. Their whereabouts remain a mystery even today though fourteen years have passed since one of them disappeared and another has been missing for eight. In one case, even the vision of a Hindu mystic who claimed to have divined the exact location of the lost fliers was checked, futilely, by desperate relatives of the men.

No other region in Canada and few anywhere in the world have taken such a toll of men and planes as this notorious area, and yet it lies along the westerly leg of Green One, Canada’s principal airway from Pacific to Atlantic, flown daily by commercial airliners and regularly by the RCAF. The natural route from Vancouver into the rich Okanagan Valley for light aircraft also traverses it. and it is these small machines that are its most frequent victims.

Flying conditions encountered over this area and throughout the B. C. coastal mountains are held to be the most perilous faced by pilots anywhere in Canada. It is not the mountains alone, but the conspiracy they enter into with the province's violent and deceptive weather that creates special hazards, a fact which was recently noted in an RCAF report on a T-33 Silver Star jet which crashed as it was about to land at Vancouver airport.

Attributing the accident to the pilot’s inexperience and his inability to cope with an unpredicted and blinding snowstorm that suddenly confronted him, the report concluded:

“It is again emphasized the weather in this area is most difficult to forecast accurately. Flying on the west coast is generally much more hazardous, for this reason and also because of the high terrain, than elsewhere in Canada . . . Units should send only experienced personnel as captain of aircraft on flights in this area.”

Squadron Leader George Sheahan, who, while commanding the RCAF’s 121 Communications and Rescue Flight, served as search master in a score of attempts to find planes missing in the mountains, declares. "It's the toughest flying country in the world, bar none. The first two years I was stationed in Vancouver I flew over the mountains regularly and never saw them because of the clouds.

“But,” he hastens to qualify his statement. "I’m not saying that flying in British Columbia is dangerous. It is only dangerous for the inexperienced or the foolhardy. For the capable pilot it presents problems, but they are problems that he can cope with and overcome.”

Most pilots would agree with Sheahan that flying conditions in the area are not dangerous in an absolute sense, but simply pose difficulties that modern aircraft and skilled crews can take in their stride.

“I've flown at least four thousand trips over the mountains and I can’t recall one that wasn’t routine." says Captain Art Rankin, superintendent of TCA's western region flight operations.

During the last five years. TCA aircraft have made twenty thousand four hundred and sixty flights across the mountains between Vancouver and Alberta with the loss of only one plane.

Russ Baker, president of Pacific Western Airlines, and himself known as one of the province’s finest fliers, says. “Certainly there’s more chance of a private pilot getting into trouble over the mountains than, say, over the prairies. But now aircraft have the problem licked."

The sudden destruction of a giant airliner under any circumstances evokes its own element of horror: when, as has happened twice in the Cascade and Coast mountains, a plane vanishes within a few miles of a great city and the search for it continues day after day in vain, then the horror assumes an extra dimension. This was the case in December 1942 when a Canadian Pacific twin-engined Lodestar, carrying thirteen passengers and crew, vanished eleven minutes out of Vancouver, and again in December 1956 when a crippled Trans-Canada Air Lines' four-motored North Star, with sixty-two persons aboard, disappeared over this mountain wilderness while trying to fight its way back to Vancouver.

At the time the North Star's death toll was the highest ever claimed by a civil air disaster in Canada though it has since been eclipsed by the crash, last August, of a Maritimes Central Airways DC-4 near Issoudun, Que., in which seventy-nine people perished.

Not for eight months would the mountains reveal the fate of the Lodestar, nor for five months that of the North Star.

It is this terrible capacity of the mountains to hide their victims, and not alone the number of planes and lives they have claimed, that has fed the notoriety of this region.

Even after the planes are found the mountains often refuse to yield their dead. Three peaks, where a total of eighty-six people died in the wreckage of three aircraft—the Lodestar, the North Star, and an RCAF Liberator bomber— were assessed by skilled mountaineers as too dangerous for an attempted recovery of the bodies. The B. C. government sealed off the three summits and they became wild cemeteries, marked in each case by a single cairn erected by a burial party.

In a period of four months during 1957 three private aircraft were lost in the area and nine people were killed. Late in April, even while the mystery of the missing North Star remained unsolved, an attempt by Walter Dalton, a Vancouver real-estate executive, to fly his plane from Penticton to Vancouver by night ended disastrously on a mountain snowfield. Dalton and his two companions were killed.

Three crashes within 15 miles

Then at the beginning of July the mountains spun another of their mysteries when they swallowed up two young men. John Matser and Steve Antifaev, and their small plane somewhere between Langley, near Vancouver, and Penticton.

Finally, in August, a holidaying family of four—George Hyt, a Lethbridge furniture dealer, his wife Hazel, and their two sons, seven-year-old Steven and four-year-old Michael — perished when their light aircraft smashed into a ridge of Greyback Mountain near Penticton. The plane exploded, setting the forest afire and attracting the attention of a ranger in a nearby look-out tower who then directed a ground party into the scene of the crash.

A small town standing at the head of the Fraser Valley sixty-seven air miles northeast of Vancouver and ironically named Hope marks the western entrance to the area’s most formidable reaches. The region's three major crashes—those of the Lodestar, the North Star, and the Liberator—all took place within fifteen miles of one another in the mountains south of Hope. It is between Hope and the mining town of Princeton, thirty-seven miles to the cast, where the mountains have plucked most of their smaller victims from the sky as they thread their way through the passes along the Hope-Princeton highway.

Completely surrounding Hope and Princeton is a chaotic sea of mountains, its vastness ready to engulf a downed aircraft. The giant spines of chain after chain of peaks, their monstrous shapes often cloaked by swirling cloud, erect an imposing barrier between the two towns. To penetrate it, the railway is forced to make a great bend to the north while the highway straggles as far again to the south. Near Hope the Coast mountains rise and, except where they are cleaved apart by the wide Fraser Valley, they form another solid barrier sweeping down to the sea.

Passing over this region is the Green One airway, the nation’s main transcontinental aerial highway. Operated by the Department of Transport, it is a ten-mile-wide flight path, studded with radio ranges and other navigational aids, and traveled by commercial and air-force planes whose pilots fly on instruments and at high altitudes. Light aircraft, flying visually and therefore much closer to the ground, do not follow the airway but navigate the tricky mountain passes, often taking the same winding route as the highway.

The mountains do not play a passive role but actually help to create the weather conditions that plague pilots. Those flanking the Fraser Valley form a giant funnel and through this masses of warm moist air sweep in from the Pacific and rush toward the head of the valley at Hope. When high winds strike the mountain barrier the air is lifted rapidly and layers of cloud, towering as high as twenty thousand feet, are banked up over the Coast and Cascade ranges. This sudden rise whips the air into a turmoil, creating a wild atmospheric condition called turbulence. Powerful up and downdrafts shoot through the sky, lifting or dropping any plane they encounter.

"I’ve been bounced all over the sky by turbulence so severe it has tipped the aircraft right up on its wing.” remarks Flying Officer Phil Kennedy, a veteran of many search operations over the Cascades. "You can rise a thousand feet or drop a thousand feet in seconds." During the hunt for the TCA North Star even experienced air crew were nauseated as these great gusts seized huge Cansos and Lancasters and flung them about.

Skimming through the valleys, light planes are sometimes dashed into the mountains by eddies caused as the wind boils over the lee side of a peak. Even bigger aircraft must beware of these downdrafts when, during a search, they attempt to fly in close to a mountain side.

Turbulence creates still another menace—icing. Droplets of water suspended in the fast-rising air are quickly cooled to below freezing yet do not turn into ice until a plane strikes them. Then they crystallize and begin to cake on the wing. To prevent this happening, modern airliners are equipped with de-icers —heated wings that melt the ice. or pulsating rubber wing edges that crack it as it forms.

Four-motored airliners that fly Green One over the Cascades fear neither the turbulence nor the ice. Flying on instruments and constantly briefed on the weather by other aircraft that have recently passed over the area, the pilot can usually pick a favorable path through the clouds. Even if one of these big machines does encounter violent weather it is superbly equipped to cope with it.

TCA sends fourteen flights a day over the Cascades and over the Rockies beyond. almost always without incident. No longer are its pilots paid a mountain differential as they were in the days of twin-engined planes. "We don’t consider this route dangerous,” says Norman Donnelly, the company’s western region operations manager. “Our record proves it isn’t. It simply presents problems which, by planning, we overcome.”

The leaden hand of death

The story is different when an airliner becomes crippled—when, for instance, it loses a motor as did TCA’s ill-fated North Star. Then the weather may lay its leaden hand on the aircraft and drag it down to its death in the mountains.

High winds, extreme turbulence, and ice—all were to be encountered over the Cascades the night of December 9, 1956, when the North Star, Flight 810 from Vancouver to Toronto, was lost. As the plane taxied along the runway at Vancouver Airport just before taking off, the pilot of an inbound TCA flight reported. “There is quite a lot of build-up (towering clouds) in the Cascades. Quite a bit of ice in it at fifteen to sixteen thousand feet. Should be a lot higher than this if . . . going eastbound.”

The thirty-five-year-old commander of the North Star, Captain Allan Clarke, a wartime bomber pilot and a veteran airlines flier, took his ship up to nineteen thousand to get above the weather. Even there he ran into severe turbulence and, to escape it, had to climb another two thousand feet.

Exactly forty-two minutes after leaving Vancouver and while nearing Princeton, the airliner encountered trouble. “Looks like we have a fire,” Clarke radioed. He shut down No. 2 engine, where fire had been indicated by a safety device on the instrument panel, feathered the propeller, and turned on the fire extinguisher. Then he swung the airliner back toward Vancouver.

Five minutes later he reported to the Department of Transport's Area Traffic Control, in Vancouver, “We're endeavoring to maintain nineteen thousand feet. We would like clearance immediately to get down if we can. We're losing altitude quite fast here.” ATC cleared him down to fourteen thousand feet, instructing him to return along the Green One airway.

A head wind that reached a velocity of ninety-five miles per hour slashed the North Star’s ground speed perhaps to about one hundred miles per hour. Yet Clarke still felt he would make it home. ATC asked him, “You'll be able to hold fourteen thousand okay, will you?” Clarke replied, "I think so.”

Eighteen minutes after he had turned back and precisely an hour after he had taken off from Vancouver. Clarke began his last exchange with ATC: "810 by Hope at 7.10. Request descent down to ten thousand feet.” AFC cleared him down to eight thousand.

Ten thousand feet is the absolute minimum altitude at which TCA allows its planes to fly along the Green One airway from Hope to Maple Ridge, twenty-three miles from Vancouver, while the government minimum is eight thousand. In spite of the ATC clearance to a lower altitude, Clarke would still be expected to comply with the TCA standard of ten thousand feet.

Throughout its flight the North Star was under constant surveillance by a United States Air Force radar team. The radar plot indicates the airliner was not on Green One when this last exchange took place, but was flying to the south where even higher altitudes are enforced.

For one more minute after Clarke’s last conversation with ATC, the North Star was tracked on the radar screen. Then it disappeared in the vicinity of Silvertip mountain, an 8,530-foot peak about twenty miles southeast of Hope.

For eighteen days a fleet of thirty planes and ground parties of police and woodsmen took part in the most intensive air-and-land search ever carried out in Canada. But the weather that had helped to trap the North Star conspired to hamper every effort to find it.

A fog that enshrouded the upper reaches of Mount Slesse one Sunday last May led, inadvertently, to the discovery of the North Star by two alpinists, Elfrida Pigou and Geoff Walker, of Vancouver. Their goal was the summit of Slesse but on entering the clouds they became confused, took a wrong turn and eventually ascended a pinnacle that rises seven thousand seven hundred feet, slightly lower than the main peak. It was there they found fragments of the lost plane.

One section of the plane had plunged two thousand feet down a precipice where it buried itself in a snowfield too treacherous for climbers to penetrate. The largest piece of wreckage dangled out of reach down a sheer cliff, suspended by cables that had caught on a ledge.

The British Columbia government placed the mountain under a forest reserve to bar the public, a ban that is still enforced by a constant RCMP guard.

Eight months after the crash a funeral party was landed by helicopter on a small shelf on the mountainside, three thousand feet below the scene of the crash. Protestant and Catholic services were read and a wooden cross erected.

Less than fifteen miles to the northwest of Mount Slesse rises Knight Peak where thirteen men and women lost their lives on December 20, 1942, in the crash of a Canadian Pacific Airlines' Lodestar, bound for Vancouver from Prince George. Eight months after the plane had vanished the wreckage was sighted by the pilot of another CPA airliner, Captain Don Patry. While three men conducted a funeral service on the mountain top, a CPA plane circled overhead, cutting its motor as it glided in close to the peak. Then, through a hole in the floor of the aircraft. Patry scattered armfuls of flowers.

Inexperience that has led to chancetaking has been the region's most helpful ally in its war against the pilots of light aircraft who fly visually through the mountains, following the twists and turns of the valleys. Time and again young fliers have been lured to their death by deceptive weather conditions.

The danger arises when clouds pack in against the mountains, with wisps trailing like ghostly fingers into the valleys. An experienced pilot will take one look and then scuttle for home because he knows a downdraft could lower the ceiling by as much as a hundred feet within seconds, trapping him suddenly in a cloud-filled pass. But a green pilot may be tempted to try to beat the weather by flying beneath this jagged ceiling, only to be caught when the clouds shut down on him. If the ceiling is broken he may shoot through a hole to get on top of the weather. Later he may find no hole for his descent and then he must plunge blindly down through the clouds and possibly into a mountain peak.

Typical is the case of Bill Lee, who, with his brother Glen, left Vancouver one day in May 1947 to fly to Estevan, Sask. Bill was a newly licensed pilot. A newspaper report records the end of the story: “Gathering clouds and a dead-end mountain pass joined forces to kill the two flying brothers.”

Twenty-three-year-old Tommy Chung, an amateur pilot from Trail, B.C., took on, unwittingly, all of the terrors of the area—snow, ice and turbulence—in April 1950, though he had only two months’ flying experience. With a passenger, he attempted to fly from Trail to Vancouver, via the Hope-Princeton route. Nothing has been seen or heard of them since.

Only a handful of pilots have been lucky enough to survive after crashing in the region. Of these the most publicized was a young Vancouver draftsman. Bill Grant, who was also an experienced and skilled flier. Grant and a friend, Sheila Cure, a student nurse, were lost in the mountains for five days in May 1949.

Returning from a trip to Cardston. Alta.. Grant was navigating the passes along the Hope-Princeton highway in his single-engined plane when suddenly he was confronted by "a black wall of snow." To escape from it, he soared to ten thousand feet only to run into ice. Soon the aircraft began to shake and rattle. In desperation. Grant came down again and headed south through the Cascades toward the U. S.

With his fuel supply about to run out, he now had no alternative but to attempt a crash landing on a mountain slope, depending upon the trees to help cushion his fall. “I spilled her in as gently as I could,” he recalled later. So skilfully did he settle the plane down into the tree tops that neither he nor his passenger was hurt.

Five days later an RCAF search plane spotted Grant and Miss Cure still at the scene of the crash, on Mount Hozameen, fifty miles southeast of Hope and just within the border of Washington State. A ground party and a para-rescue team hacked their way through the bush, felling trees to bridge mountain streams, and eventually brought them out.

Two Roman Catholic priests from Detroit lived through the crash of their plane in July 1952, after a downdraft had seized it and flung it against a mountain near Penticton. The pilot, Father Lambert Lavoie, was severely injured. It took his friend, Father Vincent Myrich, three days to beat his way through the wilderness and find help.

Searching for planes lost among these treacherous ranges, or anywhere in the B. C. mountains, is a difficult, often dangerous assignment, demanding great skill from the pilots and their crews. This was hammered home to the province’s private fliers last summer, during the convention of the B.C. Aviation Council, by Flight Lieutenant Danny Porayko. deputy commander of the RCAF's 121 Communications and Rescue Flight, at Vancouver.

“Service pilots don't hesitate to turn back, even when only ten minutes from their destination if they encounter marginal weather,” Porayko told them. “It's when you don't that we have to go out in dirty weather and risk our necks to look for you. Remember, you are flying over country that’s the toughest in the world to search from the air. All that we ask is that you give us half a break. Paint your aircraft so it can be seen from the air, and if you do crash, stay with your plane.”

While over flat terrain an aircraft may make one clean sweep of the territory to be covered, in the mountains a far more painstaking search must be made. A whole hour may be spent probing a single mountain, the plane circling around it several times to comb its various levels. To stand a chance of spotting a wreck, which may be hidden in a gully or screened by timber, the pilot has to edge his aircraft in close to the mountain, often skimming the tree tops and ridges by no more than a hundred feet. Even then the aircraft may fly directly over a crashed plane without the crew sighting it. This happened during the North Star search after a private pilot, Butch Merrick, had reported seeing wreckage on Mount Slesse last Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day an RCAF helicopter, with Merrick aboard, and a TCA Viscount airliner circled Slesse but they found nothing.

Not only the pilot but every member of his crew has to be skilled and constantly on the alert when looking for a plane lost in the mountains. “A navigator's map reading has to be dead perfect." says Flight lieutenant Wally Luchka, who was navigation leader of the North Star hunt. “If he calls one wrong turn up a dead-end valley, you're finished.”

Treacherous weather may strike at any time to hamper or even stop the search. During the North Star operation RCAF planes logged six hundred hours in ranging over more than five thousand square miles, but bad weather cut their effective search time to three hundred and eighty-six hours.

Driven by anxiety, relatives have continued to hunt for men lost in the mountains even after the RCAF has called off its official search. The most intensive of these private attempts to find a missing plane was organized by John Antifaev, a garage owner in the small B. C. town of Grand Forks.

Since last July, Antifaev has sought his twenty-four-year-old son, Steve, and Steve’s friend, John Matser, a twenty-one-year-old railway policeman, who vanished in the Hope-Princeton area. The pair was lost July I while attempting to fly young Antifaev’s single-engined Taylorcraft from Langley, near Vancouver, to Penticton.

The day the two men disappeared John Antifaev closed his garage and began to take part in the search. His hopes were raised momentarily on the third day when the wreck of a light plane was sighted on Mount Hozameen, but they were dashed when a ground party, lowered from an RCAF helicopter, identified it as the aircraft Bill Grant had crash-landed there in 1949.

After ten days the RCAF withdrew its planes, yet Antifaev refused to quit and even now has not given up hope of finding his son’s craft. He has spent four thousand dollars to charter aircraft. One of these he sent to check the story of a Hindu mystic who said he’d seen the wreckage of the lost plane “eight miles south of Princeton on the east side of the highest knoll." It was a fruitless mission.

The first month Antifaev traveled eight thousand miles, by plane and on foot, in search of his son. During a press interview. at which he and Matser’s parents announced the posting of a thousand dollar reward for information leading to the discovery of the plane, Antifaev was so tired he kept falling asleep. Every week end but two since early in July ground parties of volunteers, drawn mainly from the Doukhobor community in Grand Forks, to which Antifaev belongs, have scoured the mountains near the U. S. border where the small plane was last seen.

The area holds the key to an even more baffling mystery—the loss fourteen years ago, in January 1944, of an RCAF twin-engined bomber as it was about to begin its let-down for a landing in Vancouver.

Piloted by an overseas veteran, Flight Lieutenant Harry Donkersley, DFC, of Powell River. B.C., and with a crew of three aboard, the bomber was flying from Lethbridge to Victoria.

Donkersley radioed his last report as he passed over a navigational aid known as the Maple Ridge fan marker in the Fraser Valley, twenty-three miles east of Vancouver. It marks the entrance to the Vancouver air circuit. Once an aircraft reaches Maple Ridge it begins to make its let-down and is allowed to descend to as low as five thousand feet. For here the mountains are lower and are swept back as the delta of the Fraser River widens out to the sea.

The bomber was home-free—and yet it never reached Vancouver. Instead it must have veered north off the airway and into the mountains flanking the river valley.

What happened to it remains a mystery to this day.