By Anne Gafiuk
In the summer of 1946, at the age of 17, William Cameron was awarded an Air Cadet Flying Scholarship at the Regina Flying Club. He said, “Throughout that summer, the RCAF flew a large number of Fairchild Cornell aircraft to RCAF Holding Unit No. 201 at the airport at Estevan, Saskatchewan from Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS) of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, bases that are now closed.”
He explains, “The Cornell was a low-wing, two-pilot elementary training aircraft that had been supplied in considerable numbers to the government of Great Britain, by the government of the United States, for use in the BCATP, under the 1941 ‘Lend-Lease’ agreement between those two countries.”
At that time, Cameron was just learning to fly. “During the two weeks of my flying course, I witnessed, on two occasions, the arrival and departure from the Regina airport of an RCAF C-47, carrying a number of RCAF pilots. I was tremendously impressed by the appearance of those young men. Most of them were flight lieutenants or flying officers, and almost all of them wore a number of honours decorations below their pilot wings on their uniforms. There were many Distinguished Flying Cross ribbons, as well as ribbons for various theatres of war.”
Of those on board the C-47 known by its RCAF designation as Dakota 962, 11 had been awarded the DFC, with one having the DFC and Bar, another the DSO and DFC, and three had received the Burma Star for their service in the Second World War’s Burma Campaign. Twelve were flight lieutenants and eight were flying officers. The sole leading aircraftman was the airframe mechanic.
Cameron recollects, “Those men were in ‘high spirits.’ They had survived the horrors of wartime operations, and were in a holiday mood as they went off to Estevan to fly Cornells across the border to the United States. Possibly some of them had learned to fly on those very same Cornell aircraft at a Canadian EFTS. Our small air cadet trainee group was in awe of those vibrant, young, veteran pilots. The pilots that we saw at Regina Airport in August of 1946 were either on their way to Estevan for the ferry operations, or having finished their assignment, were returning to Ottawa for discharge from the service.”
On September 12, 1946, F/L Wilson Marshall Iverson, officer in charge of No. 124 (Ferry) Squadron, instructed F/L Stewart and his crew to proceed to Estevan, Saskatchewan.
On the morning of September 15, the 21 men, including one pilot, one co-pilot, 18 ferry pilots, and one airframe mechanic, checked out of the Roosevelt Hotel in Minot, North Dakota and headed to the airport. They were readying themselves for a routine 45-minute cross-country transport flight northwest to Estevan, as passengers aboard Dakota 962, getting ready to ferry another set of Cornells back to Minot.
The pilot provided the flight plan after becoming airborne at 0930 hours CST. He reported his ETA at Estevan being 1015 hours CST and did not report any difficulties, making no further contact with ground stations.
At 1020 hrs CST, the dispatching officer of No. 124 (Ferry) Squadron reported that Dakota 962 crashed upon landing at RCAF Station Estevan.
Witnesses on the airbase testified that only two men had signs of life when responders first arrived on scene, but remained unconscious. All men on board Dakota 962 were thrown to the front of the plane, many on fire, after impact. The medical officer identified the individuals by rings, laundry marks and billfolds, among other things including watches, five of which needed to be identified by the families.
The crash and the funeral procession to the railway station in Estevan made local and national news across Canada. The men’s bodies were returned to their homes coast to coast, via train, with the exception of F/O Henry Hugh Cowan, DFC, whose body was flown home to Ottawa, as his mother was on her deathbed.
The Court of Inquiry said it was difficult to determine what had transpired in Dakota 962 between takeoff and the crash, but concluded Dakota 962 crashed on landing at RCAF Station Estevan as a result of loss of control due to an elevator control lock being in the locked position. The pilot was guilty of negligence in the performance of his duties, in that he failed to carry out a proper pre-flight check.
Questions were also raised about who was piloting the aircraft; at Minot, F/O Pond was noted as the pilot, but the seventh witness at the inquiry claimed F/L Stewart was given the responsibility as pilot. Due to the fire, “It was not possible to determine which of these two officers were occupying the left hand seat.”
The Court of Inquiry recommended:
That on aircraft using outside locks, the duties of the airman in carrying out daily inspections be amended to include the inspection of control locks, ensuring that each lock carries a red streamer at least 4 feet in length.
That all aircraft be fitted with racks, one for each control lock. These racks should be positioned in the radio compartment of the aircraft so that the pilot and co-pilot can check visually that they are in their proper storage spot prior to flight.
That all units be instructed to emphasize once again to all pilots the necessity for carrying out the proper pre-flight check.
Cameron recalls that, “A few weeks after the completion of the 20 hours of flight training at Regina Flying Club, I was shocked to learn about the crash of Dakota 962 at Estevan. It immediately occurred to me that the victims of that accident might well have been the same young men that I had so much admired at Regina Airport a few weeks earlier.”
Also shaken by the accident claiming many war heroes, the French, American and British military attachés in Ottawa sent their condolences to Air Marshal Robert Leckie.
On September 30, 1946, No. 124 (Ferry) Squadron was disbanded.
In October 1946, Mrs. Constance Marie Pond, wife of one of the designated pilots, F/O Pond, wrote the RCAF thanking them for their condolences and floral tributes, plus the honour paid to her husband at his funeral services in both Estevan and Montreal:
My husband did not even have his 2-weeks’ leave so he did not have a holiday this year, although he did not complain. The night he phoned from Ottawa to tell me they were going out West, he said he was at last signed up for his ‘leave’ and was called back and told ‘No you don’t. You’re going out West ...’
These are the things I can’t bear to think about — that seems so unfair and although I have had a report on how it is surmised the accident occurred, I believe, from my husband’s letters and cards written out there that they worked so hard, they were all tired out and the Pilot simply was so tired that he made a mistake.
With their findings and recommendations, the Court of Inquiry and subsequent memorandums between September 1946 and February 1947 made sure that this type of accident would not readily occur again.
Air Marshal Robert Leckie wrote in January 1947: “During this coming year as the Royal Canadian Air Force gets back to regular flying operations, there will be many pilots returning to active flying who have for sometime been employed on other duties. Many of these pilots will have done very little flying for some time and accidents are liable to occur during the period of their refresher training. For this reason the compulsory use of pre-flight and pre-landing checking list is to be reintroduced into the RCAF for all types of aircraft.”
“Two years later, in 1948,” recalls Cameron, “I became an employee of Canadian Pacific Air Lines Ltd. (CPAL) as a radio operator/agent. On those occasions, when a company aircraft was to remain on the ground overnight or was unattended for a long period in windy conditions, it was my responsibility at airports to which I was assigned, to place the elevator gust locks on the company DC-3s. The locks were put in place immediately after the aircraft arrived at the airport terminal, and removed as soon as the pilots went to the cockpit, prior to start-up of the engines for departure.”
Cameron says, “Knowing that the cause of the tragic accident of the RCAF C-47 at Estevan in 1946 was the failure to remove the elevator gust locks, it was a source of great comfort to me in carrying out these duties, to know that it was almost impossible for the gust locks used by CPAL to remain in place as the aircraft taxied away. Attached to each gust lock was a long, red canvas ribbon — easily seen — and a length of flexible cable, about four feet long, that was attached to a 10-pound metal ring. In the event that the removal of the gust lock had been overlooked prior to the aircraft departure, the heavy weight lying on the ground would pull the locks from the elevators as the aircraft moved away.”
Cameron, now 88, remembers, “How tragic that such a simple, inexpensive device had not been available for that RCAF C-47 departure from Minot, North Dakota, on that fateful day of September 15, 1946. I was overwhelmed by the seeming injustice of their death in peacetime, after having survived the many dangers of operational flying during the Second World War.”
Estevan Crash Memorialized: Commemorating the men who died 61 years ago aboard Dakota 962
text & photo's by Anne Gafiuk
On September 10, 2017, Darren Jones, chainsaw artist from Rimbey, Alberta, delivered his latest Second World War memorial to the town of Estevan, Saskatchewan.
Only knowing a little about the story of the crash of Dakota 962 when he started, he felt he had to do this memorial. (For more information on the crash, read Anne Gafiuk’s article Decimated, Demoralized & Disbanded in Volume 24, Issue 7). “I have been thinking about this for a year. Who else was going to do this?” Having created the Estevan Soldiers’ Memorial almost two years ago, it seemed a natural fit for Jones.
Using red cedar, white oak and Douglas fir, Jones crafted a stunning tribute to the 21 men who lost their lives in the fiery crash of September 15, 1946.
“There is no fire in the design. Just straight up clouds! It will appear to be floating once it’s installed. There will also be a Lancaster above, and if time, a Spitfire and a Hurricane.” Jones carves up to eight feet a day with one of his collection of five chainsaws, following up with fine tuning, using side and die grinders, then airbrushing stain into the wood. “It brings out the highlights of the grain.”
Jones carves into the night. “When the light goes down, with the shading that occurs, the men’s faces come to life and they stare at me.” Having two storyboards with the men’s information upon them, he has gotten to know them on a first name basis. “Robert is one of my favourites. He reminds me of Humphrey Bogart. And then there is Raymond. I want to capture his youth.”
There will be a few blank faces. “I have photos of all the men, except [for a couple that we could not locate in archives]. The other blank face will be there to show respect for the other RCAF pilots who served in WWII. I am hopeful that families will find out about this memorial and perhaps I will get a picture of [those missing]. I can always carve [their faces] at a later date.”
“These men were heroes. I have empathy for the loss. My wife died last September. It seems right to be bringing this to Estevan, because Patricia and I made our last trip there together. I need to do this for my own healing.”