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Shaking Hands with the Ghost of Charron Lake

Written by Bill Zuk.

Shaking Hands with the Ghost of Charron Lake

ghost 300By Bill Zuk

 The saga of James A. Richardson's pioneering efforts in creating a bush air carrier and his dreams of developing Canadian Airways into a transcontinental airline is well known. Sadly, Richardson's vision was not fulfilled and his company's aircraft were absorbed into other operations. During the summer of 2005, an underwater archaeological expedition has announced a monumental discovery - the location of one of lost Canadian Airways transports that plied the northern routes of Manitoba.

 The story begins on December 10, 1931, somewhere north of Little Grand Rapids.

canadian-airways logo 600Stewart McRorie clenched at the controls of Fokker Universal "G-CAJD," peering into an increasingly bleak sky in front of him. This was to have been a "milk run" for James A. Richardson's Canadian Airways. Their cargo was food and supplies for the prospectors up at Island Lake in northern Manitoba where a gold strike had recently brought a flurry of activity. For the last few minutes, over the roar of the engine and fighting against the bitter wind in the open cockpit, pilot McRorie had been shouting back to his flight engineer, Neville "Slim" Forrest, that their prospects were looking exceedingly grim.

There were only two viable options in a line squall, push on and hope for the best or start looking for a landing site. As precious moments ticked by, McRorie made his decision. Descending in shallow dives from 2000 ft. to 200 ft., he could make out the icy shape of a lake directly ahead of him, still on his original compass heading. Seeing a bluish hue, McRorie judged the lake as solid.

McRorie later recalled in a 1981 interview, " I wanted to land while I knew where I was." He stretched his glide to "a long stretch on the lake on the northern, north-east side," aiming for a spot 200 yards out and then taking it in "about 25 or 30 yards from the shore."

Marking the time of landing as approximately "noon," McRorie expertly touched down in his ski-equipped plane and cut "JD's" throttle to idle. Slowly steering for the shoreline, the heavily-laden Fokker Universal suddenly began crashing through the thin upper layer of ice.

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Photo: Stewart McRorie c. 1935, the McRorie family via the Western Canada Aviation Museum (WCAM)

Scrambling out of the transport, McRorie and Forrest, abandoned the plane. For the first night, a lean-to had been fashioned on the side of the aircraft to protect Forrest, who had escaped the aircraft through the side cabin door and was drenching wet after plunging into the lake.

Two other Canadian Airways transports, much faster and newer Fokker "Super" Universals on the same cargo run were already in the air, setting off ahead of McRorie, trying to beat out the storm. Scanning the grey, violent storm, the duo knew that they could survive if they just kept their wits about them. Their best chance for rescue would be to wait out the storm and stay put; their companion planes just had to retrace McRorie's flight path to locate the downed plane.

The pair made their way to shore next day to set up a campsite. They lit two fires on islands and kept them going during the daylight, hopping to draw attention to their plight. Even without modern aerial maps or other air navigation supports, bush pilots had made their reputation as rugged survivors who could get out of perilous situations. Many intrepid fliers had even packed snowshoes for the inevitable trudge back home.

After nearly using up their emergency rations and canned goods retrieved from the cargo hold, McRorie and Forrest were spotted by Tom Boulanger, a local fur trapper who had seen one of their campfires. Knowing that although overhead, the swirling storm and heavy overcast prevented aerial searchers from finding the downed aircraft, the group decided to set out for Little Grand Rapids, their starting-point on the fateful flight. Two days into their trek, McRorie and Forrest, accompanied by Boulanger and another native guide, made their way back to safety.

fokker universal 600The abandoned Fokker Universal sat forlornly imbedded in the ice of Charron Lake until spring breakup in 1932 when it gracefully floated to the bottom, seemingly lost for all time in the remote northern Manitoba lake. Canadian Airways dutifully wrote the aircraft off their books shortly after.

July 4, 2005, in a survey vessel on Charron Lake, the five members of the search team peered into the monitor. The ghostly image was unmistakable, the lost Fokker Universal, G-CAJD, was resting on the bottom, 40 meters below the gently swaying boat. It was the realization of a quest that had spanned over 70 years.

The story over the years had been respite with rumours and false hopes and after nine fruitless expeditions, the lost Fokker had become known as the "Ghost of Charron Lake." George Lammers, the late museum curator of the Western Canada Aviation Museum (WCAM) had given the aircraft that tagline but it had been chillingly close to the truth.

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Photo: Side-scan sonar image courtesy of Patrick Madden and Annette Spaulding

Long before, the First Nations people that had lived nearby had considered Charron Lake as the home of the spirits but the haunting quality of the lost Fokker Universal had also exerted a spell on all those who had come looking for it. George Richardson, son and heir of James A. Richardson's empire, had passed the legal title for "JD" to the Western Canada Aviation Museum in the hopes that the last remaining example of the 44 Fokker Universals would eventually surface. The first efforts to locate the lost plane began in 1974 but it was only lately, that a new recovery team emerged to take on the hunt.

In 1991, Corporal Patrick Madden, the supervisor of the RCMP Provincial Underwater Recovery Team called in for rescue and recovery operations, received an unusual request from Gordon Emberly, founding member of the Western Canada Aviation Museum. Emberly wanted to locate and recover McRorie's sunken Fokker Universal in a northern lake, 350 kilometers northeast of Winnipeg. Madden's first inconclusive diving exercise at Charron Lake began more than a decade-long odyssey to locate its elusive prey. Even after his retirement from the RCMP as a Sergeant, the allure of the lost Fokker bush plane brought Madden back to the chilly waters of Charron Lake to direct renewed search efforts.

Whimsically nicknamed the "Fokker Aircraft Recovery Team," (F.A.R.T. for short) in its third incarnation, with his wife, Annette Spaulding, Madden had assembled a formidable group of marine and aviation experts. Patrick Madden, Ken McMillan, Gordon Nowicky, Annette Spaulding and W.R. "Bil" Thuma all brought unique skills to the project.

Both Madden and Spaulding are divers who had met due to their mutual involvement in the International Association of Dive Rescue Specialists (IARDS). They now operate Dolphin Underwater Professionals (LLC) in Vermont. Spaulding had been internationally recognized from her work on many wreck sites. McMillan, a marine geophysicist and president of McQuest Marine Sciences Limited from Burlington, Ontario and geophysicist Thuma, president of GeoTec/Plus Ultra consulting firm (Toronto) not only bring scientific expertise, they have previously been involved in countless historic searches and recoveries together and on their own, including the fabled "Lost Squadron" in Greenland and the Halifax bomber recovered from a Norwegian fjord. Nowicky, a retired Air Canada ground equipment technician and tireless WCAM volunteer, was an aviation expert and a remarkable "jack-of-all-trades" who could design and build nearly anything the team needed.

What drives this team of volunteers is the elusive come-hither of Charron Lake's Ghost. Year after year for six summers, based out of a fishing camp run by Selkirk Air on this remote northern lake and working 14-hour days, at times buffeted by severe wind and rainstorms, the search team plied the waters of Charron Lake with sophisticated underwater side-scan sonar forays. "Mowing the grass" was how Ken McMillan described the search, but the systematic exploration of the depths of the 35-square-kilometre lake did not easily reveal the ghost's secrets. In 2004, a final sweep completed a two-week long survey of nearly the entire lake and its rocky bottom. Scans had indicated tantalizing "hits" although each dive would frustratingly bring back evidence of a rock shelf or other anomaly. In one dive to confirm a reading, even five feet away in the murk of the bottom, Annette had been sure that she was looking at a wing structure until closer examination would again reveal another rock formation.

IMG 2900 600Photo: "Ghost" sonar scan

The team leaders, Madden and his wife, who now reside in Rockingham, Vermont, were acknowledged by the others as being the "heart and soul" of the search. Throughout their lengthy quest, Annette and Patrick, have become passionately immersed as true historians in the minutiae and details of the final flight. Bil Thuma described their dedication in this way, "They just dug, and dug, and dug – that's what you have to do. I can't stress enough what their contribution to the search was."

Through their delving into archival records held at the Manitoba Provincial archives and at WCAM, they have plumbed the depths of the mythology surrounding the last flight of G-CAJD. The 1999 magnetometer survey done for the museum identified areas of the lake with unusually high magnetic metal content based on the belief that the aircraft's cargo hold included steel drill rods. After carrying out intensive interviews of surviving McRorie family members (Stewart McRorie had passed away in the 1980s) and others, it became increasingly clear that many of the initial reports including the existence of drill rods were false leads.

Two significant developments occurred recently. Patrick and Annette's research led them to the grandson of the fur trapper who found the stranded pilots in 1931. Tom Berens now recalled, "When he was five years old, Mr. Boulanger, the fur trapper, took him and showed him where this plane landed." Armed with that vital knowledge, the 2005 expedition was able to concentrate on this likely landing spot. "We used that information, the weather report, and ... more sophisticated equipment. We knew right where we wanted to start this year – and talk about being right on target." Ken McMillan placed the team precisely over the Ghost. "You can't get any better than this," said Annette.

Armed with the recent extensive survey of the lake, one other distinctive feature had to be explored. The existence of a lengthy reef, often barely eight feet below the surface would turn out to be the final key to the ultimate discovery of the Ghost. In other sweeps, the rocky reef had been considered problematic in the trolling of the sonar side-scan "fish" with both McMillan and Bill Thuma taking care to fly the fish out of harm's way. This summer, the team re-deployed new side-scan sonar equipment over familiar territory and on only the third pass near the reef, Patrick Madden recalled seeing "an eerily clear image of the ghost plane resting on the lake's bottom."

Looking at the other members of the search team, Thuma said, "The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I got goose bumps." Madden remembered his initial reaction as, "How do you describe the moment of finding the last remaining aircraft of this type in the world? You can't describe it. It's a moment of elation, excitement and relief. It's very emotional."

After 74 years entombed in its watery grave, the Ghost of Charron Lake was revealed. A remotely-controlled ROV brought back video confirmation of the skeletal remains of Fokker Universal G-CAJD sitting upright in the bottom silt. In tracing the outline of the aircraft, Ken McMillan noted, "the wooden wing had shed its plywood cover but spars and ribs remained with the steel tube fuselage structure similarily intact." Gordon Nowicky surmised that the missing engine was probably torn from its mounts when the transport began to break through the ice but he believed the Wright J-5 Whirlwind and prop were nestled under the fuselage.

meeting of dive team and family 600

Photo: L-R Audrey McLennan (daughter of Stewart McRorie) and her husband, Mr. G.N. McLennan meeting Gordon Nowicky, Annette Spaulding and Patrick Madden Photo: Bill Zuk

Shirley Render, Executive Director of WCAM and George Richardson who had funded the search expeditions. From his summer home on Lake of the Woods, Richardson praised the team's efforts, "We've waited years for this, and now we've found it." He said, "It was a very wonderful airplane and it's the last one in the world, so it's very significant." Richardson forecast that the next stage will be critical, "It will be raised and ... will be part of the museum."

Render noted that, "The discovery of the plane and the retrieval of the plane is important not just to the Western Canadian Aviation Museum. It's part of Canada's aviation heritage." She describes the Fokker Universal or "Standard" as a key element in the development of Canada's remote northern and western regions. Only one other Fokker Universal exists, albeit in pieces as part of the Canada Aviation Museum "study" collection. James A. Richardson purchased 12 of the sturdy single-engine, open cockpit planes to haul mail, cargo and passengers for the seminal Western Canada Airways that later morphed into Canadian Airways. The first Fokker transports bore the names, "City of Winnipeg" and "City of Toronto." G-CAJD was built in 1928.

mcrorie family 600

Photo: WCA Fokker Universal, "G-CAJD," Western Canada Aviation Museum (WCAM)

As Richardson's business grew, the original craft were soon supplemented by the Fokker Super Universal. The modernization of the original design featured a more powerful engine and an enclosed cockpit for the pilot. The only flying example of the later variant, Clark Seaborn's 1929 "CF-AAM" is scheduled to come back home to the Western Canada Aviation Museum in the fall, 2005 where it will be reunited hopefully someday with the Ghost of Charron Lake.

For a few days, the search team basked in the glow of media attention garnered after the release of the underwater images of the Ghost before planning the process of recovery. Annette Spaulding wistfully confided, "I can't wait to be able to touch this plane that nobody else has touched or seen for almost three-quarters of a century."

IMG 0562 600

Photo: L-R The "Fokker Aircraft Recovery Team" – Gordon Nowicky, W. R. "Bil" Thuma, Patrick Madden, Annette Spaulding,
Ken McMillan, Photo: Bill Zuk

The Fokker "Standard" Universal

city of winnipeg 432

Photo: WCA Fokker Universal, "City of Winnipeg," Western Canada Aviation Museum (WCAM)

There are both single- and tri-motor planes under production, and the factory is working on a revolutionary new single-engine model specially adapted for the Arctic. It is called the Fokker Standard Universal, a sturdy high-wing job, and my fingers itch to handle its controls as I see it rolled out on the line.

Bob Noorduyn, Fokker's assistant, asks me if I have ever flown a type like this, and I say, "No, we have nothing as advanced as this in Europe." Noorduyn sees my eagerness and grins. "Why don't you take it up and see what you can get out of it?" I can feel its great lifting power as I ease back on the stick, surging upward and banking in a steep climb. I have never felt better stability in the air. Its rugged build and large cargo space are destined to make it the pioneer bush plane of Canada.

Bernt Balchen Come North wih Me, 1958

First manufactured in 1926 by the Atlantic Aircraft Corporation, a subsidiary of the Fokker Aircraft Company, the Fokker Universal was designed by Robert Noorduyun. He closely followed the conventional Fokker engineering dictums of building a solid and reliable aircraft.

The Standard featured a welded steel tube fuselage and tail surfaces mated to a strut-braced plywood wing. The transport had an enclosed cabin for 4-6 passengers below and to the rear of the pilot who was seated in an open cockpit, as was the preferred custom of the time.

The Fokker Universal sold new at the Teterboro Airport factory, Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, in 1928 for $14,200. Western Canada Airways purchased 12 of the production run of 45 Universals.

fort churchill 600

Photo: WCA Fokker Universal "Fort Churchill," Western Canada Aviation Museum (WCAM)


Span: 47" 9"

Length: 33'3"

Height: 8'9"

Weight (empty): 2,192 lbs., (gross): 4,000 lbs.

Fuel Capacity: 78 U.S. gals.

Powerplant: 225 h.p. Wright J-5 Whirlwind (late production)

Service Ceiling of 11,500 feet

Cruise speed: 98 mph.

Maximum Speed: 118 mph.

Stalling speed: 48 mph. Climb rate: 800 ft./min.

Range: 535 miles