THE STRANGE LEGACY OF FLIGHT 810’S CRASH ON MT. SLESSE
Fred McClement was aviation editor of the Toronto Star and a photographer for TCA when Flight 810 disappeared between Vancouver and Calgary on Dec. 9, 1956. In his dual role he took part in the search and interviewed everyone who knew — or thought he knew — anything about the missing plane. From official records and transcripts of the last conversations between the pilots and ground control, McClement here reports on all that anyone is ever likely to learn about the crash and its legacy — a sealed-off mountaintop cemetery for 62 people.
No ONE WILL EVER LEARN the whole of the grim truth hidden in Canada's strangest graveyard. It is seventy-five miles from Vancouver on an inaccessible face of Mount Slesse. near the I rans-Canada highway and the U. S. border. It contains the unburied bodies of sixty-two men. women and children. They lie amid the far-scattered wreckage of a TCA North Star airliner. About them is everything else the plane carried: twenty-seven bags of mail, a thousand pounds of freight and express, five hundred pounds of fresh flowers, and the passengers' own baggage, jewels and money — including $80,000 believed to be in the belt of a mysterious passenger named Kwan Song.
Those long-withered flowers are the only wreath that will ever be placed on the undug graves of Mount Slesse, for an act of the British Columbia legislature has designated the mountainside a provincial cemetery and provided penalties for anyone trespassing in the area. For months before the act was passed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had guarded the approaches to the scene of disaster. The sealingoff of Mount Slesse and its dead was the last olticial act in a drama that started at Vancouver's International Airport on the dreary afternoon of December 9. 1956.
TWO MILLION DOLLARS INSURED THEIR LIVES
At 5.30 p.m. a group of impatient air travelers heard at last the announcement they had been waiting tor: "1 rans-Canada Air Lines Flight 810. North Star service for Calgary, Regina. Winnipeg. Toronto and Montreal, now loading at gate five ..."
Four of the waiting passengers were top players on the Saskatchewan Roughriders football team returning home after the annual Shrine all-star football game at Vancouver the day before. Two were U. S. imports, Mario DeMarco, who had played formerly with Detroit, and Mel Beckett, an Indiana University graduate. The other two were Ray Syrnyk. of Redwater. Alberta, and Gordon Sturtridge. of Winnipeg. The Shrine game officials had insured each ot the players tor $40,000 — half of which was to be paid to their club. In addition each player bought $100.000 in life insurance from the machine in the terminal.
In fact, the long delay in the flight and the bad weather had made the terminal’s flight-insurance machine busier than usual. Passengers on Flight 810 bought a total of $2.000,000.
Behind the football players, six Chinese passengers boarded the plane. One of them was Kwan Song, whose address was The Bowery. New York City, and who was returning from CONTINUED ON PAGE 28
CONTINUED ON PAGE 28
FLIGHT 81 O’S LEGACY
continued from page 22
Fifty-eight passengers hurried across the rain-swept apron to board the doomed North Star
Hong Kong. He had apparently left the crown colony under the watchful eye of British Intelligence and his progress through Canada was under the surveillance both ot the R( MP and the FBI. Kwan was believed to be bringing $8(),()()() in U. S. currency back to New York to pay the fares of Chinese students who had been studying at U. S. universities, and whom the Red Chinese government hoped to persuade to return to Red China to help the republic’s technological program — including its nuclear projects.
The "now loading" announcement brought a sigh of relief from Mrs. Walter Rowan, wife of a Calgary city council member who was also manager of the Calgary TCA office. The long wait hail made her children, Susan and Patrick, restless and bored. Another passenger who uttered a silent “hooray" was Mrs. Eleanor Welch, who had been visiting her mother in Vancouver and was anxious to return to Toronto and her two daughters. One of them, Judy, was Miss Toronto that year.
These were among the fifty-eight passengers who hurried across the rain-swept concrete apron to the North Star, where twenty-four-yearold Dorothy Bjornson, of Swan River, Manitoba, greeted them. She was the lone stewardess because this was a tourist flight.
"We’ll soon be on our way." she said cheerfully. "The weather has been holding us up."
Indeed it had. The plane they were now boarding had arrived at Vancouver early in the afternoon more than four hours behind schedule because of storms it had encountered over the mountains. In fact the westward flight had been so turbulent that I CA had almost decided not to dispatch the return flight. Finally it was decided to operate Flight 810 because the airport at Edmonton was clear, even if Calgary turned out to be closed in by rain and fog.
Captain Allan Clarke, thirty-five, of Montreal, and First Officer John Boon, twenty-six. of North Vancouver. spent considerable time with the airways forecaster studying the weather charts over the mountains and eastward. Then they chatted with pilots from westbound flights and decided to operate routinely to Calgary. 400 miles away, beyond the Rockies. Both men signed the flight plan at 5.14 p.m. This was the signal to the flight dispatcher to load I 1.400 pounds of highoctane gasoline into the wings of the transport.
When this was completed, bringing the proposed take-off weight to 76,850 pounds. Clarke and Boon dashed through the gusty drizzle and boarded the North Star to prepare it for the trip.
In less than five minutes, all the passengers were on the plane ... or almost all. Racing into the termim.l .n
a screeching taxicab came Calvin Jones. 1955 All-American guard from Iowa, who had played for the west in the previous day's Shrine game. He had missed an earlier flight and now TCA agents squeezed him into Flight 810, taking one of the two seats normally reserved for the stewardesses in the rear. It was the last seat left in the plane and was free because Miss Bjornson was the only stewardess aboard. While his ticket was being validated. Jones rushed to the insurance machine and bought a policy. Then he ran to the aircraft and the door closed behind him, the 58 other passengers, and the crew of three.
On the flight deck of the North Star, Captain Clarke agreed with the flight dispatcher that he should add another 800 pounds of fuel for the flight. This brought the total fuel and oil load to 13,394 pounds. Then Clarke and Boon completed their cockpit check-out and eased the lumbering aircraft to the take-off position at the western end of Runway 11.
Clarke doublechecked every phase of the engine run-up. Clarke's checkouts, as his fellow pilots knew, could be exhaustive and downright irritating. They called him “Granny Clarke” because he had never been known to take a chance, even when he had served in the RC'AF Bomber Command in the Middle East during the war.
The run-up completed, Clarke cleared with the Vancouver tower, and the noisy North Star roared down the runway into the east wind and lifted off easily at 110 knots after traveling 4.700 feet of runway.
"Vancouver Tower, this is eight one zero, off at 6.10.” radioed First Officer Boon. Clarke, at the controls, banked the heavy aircraft into a right turn and headed southward toward the Westham radio intersection — a guide and checkpoint about eight miles away on the muddy tidelands of the Strait of Georgia.
Clarke kept the North Star exactly to the flight plan issued to him by Air Traffic Control—a practice thoroughly brainwashed into all TCA flight crews. He held the plane at 3,000 feet until he reached Westham and then banked eastward, climbing steadily through the low cloud and rain. According to the instructions from Vancouver Tower, recorded on tape and still preserved. Clarke shuttled along the south leg of the Vancouver low frequency radio range hoping to reach the prescribed 10,000 feet altitude by the next radio reporting point, aptly named Mud Bay. Boon acknowledged the instructions and Flight 810 continued eastward and upward on a path about ten miles north of the U. S. border.
The plane was climbing at 500 feet per minute through light cloud. The passenger-compartment sign, “Fasten Your Seat Belts — Bouclez Vos Ceintures” remained alight. Heavier cloud formations lay ahead and occasionally tremendous cloud castles erupted into brilliant formations as lightning played over the mountains with explosions of orange and brilliant bluewhite puffballs of electric fire.
At 6.28 the plane had reached 10,000 feet.
The Vancouver tower now cleared the flight to Calgary on a route above the town of Abbotsford to the radio
checkpoint at Cultus Lake and over the coastal range. At 6.29 the North Star reported “by Mud Bay“ and six minutes later, making good time and maintaining its climb of 500 feet per minute, it reported "leaving 13.000 feet over Abbotsford.”
Flight 810 was "by Cultus Lake at 6.40" and was now climbing through 15.000 feet, a mile above the peaks below. The North Star had picked up a high tail wind and w'as climbing between the cloud layers at a speed estimated at 240 miles an hour. The flight was already sixty miles east of Vancouver and a mile north of the border between British Columbia and the state of Washington.
So far, the flight had been reasonably smooth. None of the radio communications had mentioned any difficulty. But dead ahead lay trouble, closer to the plane as it climbed into the thinning atmosphere. At the 16,000-foot level, the pilots radioed they were encountering “light to moderate turbulence” and that icing, the dread of all fliers, had begun to coat the plane’s surfaces.
Through the crackling of static caused by the electrical discharges in the clouds around him, Clarke was able to contact a TCA westbound flight twenty miles to his north. Captain Jack Wright, pilot of the SuperConstellation. was reassuring. He reported the cloud tops were at 20,000 feet and his nose winds at the moment were about ninety miles an hour. This meant that Clarke could count on these winds to help him if he climbed a little higher into the turbulent sky. Wright said he was picking up ice in his descent toward Vancouver but he didn’t think the ice or the weather would deter his scheduled eastbound flight later in the evening.
Another TCA aircraft in the sky over the mountains now reported to Flight 810. This was a Viscount thirty miles north of Flight 810’s path, and it reported clear skies at 21,000 feet.
Clarke elected to go higher. The messages from the other planes may have influenced his decision to continue on into the turbulence and icing. At 6.48 p.m., Clarke's North Star was at 19,000 feet and was battling "extreme turbulence” according to the radio messages. But clear skies were just four minutes above and the plane continued on and up. Clarke radioed Air Traffic Control requesting permission to climb to 21,000 feet and this was immediately granted by the Vancouver controller.
Up to this point, the flight in a tossing aircraft through black skies periodically blasted open by lightning must have been a frightening experience for timid passengers. To seasoned air travelers, it would be no more than a rough flight that would be forgotten as soon as they reached home. Then, at 6.52 p.m., came the crucial incident. A light flashed on the North Star's elaborate instrument panel, a light that indicated an engine was on fire—a pilot's most dreaded signal. It showed the engine afire w'as number two. adjacent to the passenger cabin on the left side. The aircraft's position was now somewhere over the Manning Provincial Park, five miles north of the U. S. border and thirtyfive miles southeast of Hope.
Vancouver w'as informed of t| trouble by this message from t| plane: "It looks like we had a fire j No. 2 engine . . . shut down No.! . . .” This message would not j known to the passengers, of couq But there would be obvious signs tfj something was wrong. The throbbii engine sounds would be consideraq decreased. A spotlight would be plaj ed over the engine from which t| warning had appeared. The lig would reveal the propeller, coated: ice. standing stark and unmoving. ;
C larke radioed that he could sj neither fire nor smoke but had shi down the engine as a precaution. T^ decision deprived the plane of a fouij of its power. I have spoken to pild who say that it is the first instinct a flyer to reach for the featheri! mechanism when the fire-w'arning lig appears. Other pilots say that Nof Star airliners were notorious for fias ing fire warnings w'hen no fires exij ed. On one occasion a TCA Non Star en route to Winnipeg from T; ronto had all four fire warnings flaj at the same time. The airefaft wj over the Lakehead cities of Pq Arthur and Fort William at a heigj of 20.000 feet. The pilot radioed tl Lakehead that all four warning ligh had appeared, but that he could pe ceive no sign of any smoke and w proceeding normally to Winnipeg.
Clarke elected to shut down oi engine.
Confusion ruled the air
Clarke then made another crucii decision—to turn back to Vancouve through the violent thunderstorms an the ice and the prospects of a hea* wind of upward of ninety miles a hour, through the treacherous updrafi and downdrafts of a storm gettin more furious by the minute, with a almost full load of fuel, a full passet ger compartment, heavy freight an baggage and one engine inoperativi
As commander of the airplant Clarke requested clearance back ov( the route he had so recently battle* His radio rasped through the sounc of the storm: "request descent cleaj ance to Vancouver via Cultus Lak and Abbotsford.”
The thunderstorms were now in h path. Clarke advised Vancouver th: he was turning south, then west aij "holding at 19,000 feet.'’
The time was 6.53 p.m.
From this moment on. confusie complicated communication w'ith tH aircraft. This w'as because Clarke an Boon were relaying their message through TCA radio at Vancouvt which, in turn, would get the clea' anees from Air Traffic Control an then send them back to the trouble North Star. Static also delayed tfj urgent messages and. finally, TCJ radio permitted the plane's crew t make their emergency requests direcl ]y to the air traffic controller.
The time was now 6.56 p.m.
It took the pilots one full minute t explain their situation to the controlle They were losing altitude and wante clearance to "get down.”
At 6.57 the flight was given deal ance to maintain 14,000 feet and t report as soon as it reached Hop radio intersection. At precisely or
ininute after seven. Air Traffic Control asked Flight 810 for an estimate on Hope. The controller wanted to know when the descending aircraft Should cross the radio intersection. The plane replied and the answer is preserved on tape: “about five minutes loughly.”
ATC asked if the flight could maintain 14,000 feet and the answer was yes. To keep the new flight plan upto-the-minute, Flight 810 was asked to make its altitude read “14,000 or above at 7.03 p.m.” A few minutes after this brief exchange, the controller was concerned that the flight had not reported through Hope. At 7.07, he called the flight again and asked if the radio intersection had been reached and Boon replied “negative.” This would indicate that the aircraft was struggling against a terrific headwind, 'as reported earlier by the westbound Super-Constellation.
The air traffic controller was not the only one concerned with the airliner's battle with the mountain storm. Radar operators of North American Air Defense (NORAD) located on the lonely Birch Bay peninsula, northwest of Bellingham, Washington, had noted Flight 810's eastward movements as a matter of routine, after the flight plan had been relayed to them by the Vancouver tower. The flight was therefore a matter of casual observance as part of the constant scanning of the busy skies over Seattle, Vancouver. Bellingham. Victoria and Patricia Bay. But when Flight 810 turned from its prescribed course and headed westward, where no plane had been reported to the NORAD control centre, the tiny white blip became an “alert.”
Birch Bay contacted the Vancouver tower and learned that the little blip with the big clouds around it was the North Star returning with one engine out. As a result of this information, the tortuous course of the flight would now be watched closely. The radar sweep could detect the distance of the aircraft from the radar scope but it could not determine its height. The plane could be seen clearly over the saw-toothed peaks beneath it.
"By Hope at 7.10 PST.” radioed Flight 810 and the Vancouver controller felt better for the moment.
This message seemed to indicate the plane was only making a ground speed of ninety miles an hour, the nose winds being upwards of 100 miles an hour at this time. But the North Star was still in critical trouble. A request from the plane a few seconds later asked for immediate descent to 10,000 feet. This was granted. It meant that the mountain peaks were now less than 2,000 feet below.
Downward and onward plunged the ice-coated aircraft, still in violent thunderstorms. The ice was forcing it lower and lower. Descending to 10,000 feet in an area where the minimum safe altitude was only 9,600 wasn't leaving Clarke and Boon much leeway lor error or downdrafts. Residents near Chilliwack at this time reported explosive thunderclaps from the mountains and rushed out to stare at storms they said were the worst they’d ever seen.
In these frightening conditions another pilot might have switched on the dead engine, deciding that in an
aircraft inexorably sinking to destruction, extra power was more important than the risk of fire. So Clarke's fellow' pilots have conjectured; Clarke, in any case, elected to follow the book.
The Birch Bay radar operators were the only people to witness the next episode. It was a spine-chilling sight— the blip of Flight 810 disappearing from the radar scope. The radar sweep made three more trips over the scope while the operators stared at the patterns. The blip did not reappear. One of the operators phoned the Vancouver tower and yelled “your Flight 810 has gone off our scope.”
Indeed it had. Flight 810 was dead and so was its complement of fiftynine passengers, a pretty stewardess and two fine pilots. It had exploded 7,970 feet up on Mount Slesse.
The crash was within three miles of the U. S. border, a clear indication that Clarke had followed his flight path to the last letter. He had flown eastward on the recognized air corridor on a heading of sixty-four degrees and had returned according to the book on a heading of 244 degrees. And the minimum safe altitude on the corridor in which he was descending was 9,600 feet.
The exact time that his airliner passed westward over the Hope radio beacon. which incidentally was over the centre of Chilliwack Lake, was known to Air Traffic Control. The path of the plane was known to the NORAD radar controller. Yet despite these known facts it took five months to find the wreckage—and then it was only found by sheer luck after an amateur mountain climber became lost in a snowstorm.
It took authorities almost two and a half hours to decide the flight was definitely missing and it wasn't until 9.35 that it was reported as “overdue." The RCAF sent up CF-100 all-weather jet fighters—the first move in what was to become the largest air search operation in the history of the RCAF. The first jet fighters ran into bad weather and were forced to limp back to their airfields. Flying Officer H. S. Gamblin, a navigator on one of the fighters, said the turbulence was so severe he was torn from his safety belt and was knocked partially unconscious while his pilot fought to control the pitching, yawing aircraft. Said one of the CF-100 pilots on his return to base: “We were thrown around so much that our safety straps were breaking and our equipment was flying all over the place. I never saw such violence before.”
The next morning, December 10, army paratroopers were airlifted into Vancouver to prepare to drop into the mountains if the wreckage were sighted. The first group of eighteen planes took off to search the snows. The search plans were confused by a report from a group of guests at a mountain lodge near Hope. They said they had heard a tremendous explosion fifty minutes after the last report from the aircraft and it seemed to come from a southeast direction. Reports poured into search headquarters about an explosion being seen in the Fraser River area hut all these stories proved groundless.
The RCAF-' spent weeks flying over an area that embraced Silvertip Moun-
tain and Mount Cheam — far to the east of the last reported position of the plane. Through rifts in the cloud covers they shot hundreds of photographs of the slopes and valleys in an attempt to find the wreckage.
During one afternoon there were twenty-four official search planes over the area as well as twenty-six civilian planes which were ill-equipped to fly mountain regions. The federal government stepped in and banned all flying over the region, except by official search planes. Several amateur mountain climbers rushed into the wilderness and many of them had to be rescued. some by helicopter.
But still no trace of Flight 810.
It was not until five months later— Sunday, May 12—that a trio of mountain climbers became lost and turned up the first clue to the location of the lost plane. The climbers were Elfreda Pigou, an alpinist from Vancouver, Geoffrey Walker, twenty-eight, and David Cathcart, twenty-three. The night before they had camped on the 1,900-foot level of the east face of Slesse and at seven a.m. started up the slopes. Six hours later, at 7.500 feet, they lost their way in a blizzard. While they huddled in the snow, a piece of paper whipped among them. Elfreda picked it up. A piece of paper on a mountain top was a rare find. It was an approach map of the Sydney, Nova Scotia, airport. The trio searched further and one of them found a small piece of aluminum jutting from the snow. It had a set of numbers on it: C'A 37-3-2000-63B.
In Vancouver the next day, the climbers took their finds to the Mountics. A check with Trans-Canada Air Fines showed the piece of metal was part of the wing of the missing North Star and the map was part of the pilot's equipment. Police and airline officials moved fast. They brought in skilled mountain climbers and helicopters. The first camp was established on Slessc’s east side at 2,500 feet and the upper camp at 5.000 feet. The weather was clear with occasional cloudy intervals.
After two days of probing the upper slopes, expert alpinist Walter Broda found grim evidence ... a twelvefoot section of fuselage, a child's shoe, a handkerchief ... a tiny human hand . . . six-inch bits of luggage material . . . a pair of men's trousers. All bore evidence of a violent explosion but none were marked by fire.
Climbing upward, the mountaineers found that the North Star had collided
with the peak only fifty feet from the top; shattered and blackened granite marked the spot. Fragments of rock fell away when touched, lmbedbcd at this spot were the wires of the pilot's headphones; the outline of his head and hat were clearly visible. Trailing clown the sheer sides of the rock were the plane's steel control cables. About 100 feet below these was a twisted propeller and, another 100 feet down, a chunk of fuselage. Half a mile below this, at the foot of a straight drop, were twin hummocks of snow and here the principal wreckage and the bodies were found. The stench from this soft white shroud forced the climbers to retreat.
Meanwhile the British Columbia attorney general's department had received from TCA a vast collection of identification material, amassed from all over the U. S., Canada and China. All was ready for the retrieval of the bodies, their identification and their burial in a common grave if the next-of-kin did not wish to claim the fragments that remained.
Coroner Glen McDonald of Vancouver was assigned to conduct an inquest into the accident. It was necessary. therefore, to get one of the bodies clown off the mountain. Assistant coroner John Quickley elected to climb Mount Slesse with several amateur mountain climbers. Halfway to the twin hummocks of snow, a small avalanche roared clown the slopes and narrowly missed Quickley, who immediately retreated to the valley.
Helicopters attempted to land on the upper slopes but failed because of downdrafts. Cumulus clouds often obscured the area, making observation difficult and dangerous. Finally, British Columbia officials and TransCanada Air Lines decided it was too dangerous to attempt to bring the bodies down the mountain at that
time. They decided to wait until summer melted the snow and exposed the bodies, and the danger of avalanches was less severe.
But summer arrived and the snows did not melt. All concerned agreed that it wasn't worth the risk to attempt to bring out the remains of the victims. It was decided to leave the victims where they had perished.
Now came the problem of how to protect the bodies from explorers in search of valuables and money that would be scattered in the area — especially Kwan Song's reputed 580,000. The British Columbia legislature moved fast. It named Mount Slesse a provincial cemetery and banned climbing on its slopes.
On the lonely, beautiful, forest road leading to the lower slopes of Mount Slesse, almost hidden in the tall pines on the north side of the tumbling Chilliwack River, stands a granite monument on which are inscribed the names of sixty-two persons. TransCanada took some 400 people to the scene exactly a year after the crash and dedicated the memorial in all religious faiths. TCA pilots and stewardesses acted as guards of honor for the ceremony.
The federal Department of Transport held an inquiry into the crash of Flight 810 which was as exhaustive as possible in view of the fact that there were no survivors, no positive eyewitnesses, and the remains of the plane could not be brought out for reassembly and evaluation. The department's report attributes two probable causes: loss of power from the shutting down of one engine when fire was suspected, and severe turbulence and icing in the area. As to whether “default or omission of duty” of any person or persons contributed to the accident, the department's decision is: “Undeter-