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Historic Second World War Canso aircraft flies again at Fairview airport

FAIRVIEW – At age 95, former Second World War pilot Hal Burns could be called a living embodiment of Canadian history.

On Sunday, at the tiny Fairview Municipal Airport in northwestern Alberta, he met another one.

Not another veteran, mind you. Rather, Burns reconnected with a newly refurbished Canso aircraft, the very same patrol bomber he had piloted three times on submarine hunting missions during the war.

It was the first time he had seen it fly again in 72 years, and the first time anyone had seen it fly since 2001.

“The Cansos were a big plane and slow plane but there was no purpose in going faster,” said Burns, who spent most of his life in Edmonton but now resides in Victoria. “The idea was to go low and slow when going after submarines.”

The opportunity for Burns to visit Canso, RCAF 11094, again was perhaps the unlikeliest of reunions.

A little under 16 years ago, the aging aircraft was employed in firefighting duty in the Northwest Territories when it crashed on a lake north of the Arctic Circle near Inuvik.

There the plane sat for seven cold years, broken, deserted and left for dead in some of the country’s most inhospitable conditions. Most believed the Canso’s chances of ever seeing the skies again were as remote as the place in which it had been abandoned.

Then six Fairview farmers heard about the historic plane’s predicament and felt it deserved a better fate.

Led by vintage airplane enthusiast Don Wieben, the group staged an elaborate rescue mission of the Canadian-built flying boat that was converted to a water bomber in the spring of 2008.

Using a combination of homegrown ingenuity, audacity and unexpected help from strangers they encountered along the way, the “Canso crew” managed to drag the 6,800-kilogram bird out of the tundra and back to Fairview, home to 3,000 residents.

Yet as difficult as that mission was, restoring the aircraft was a much longer and more complicated process.

For close to nine years, in between farming and family duties, Wieben and company worked diligently on the mammoth project.

The Canso prepares to take off.

Almost every Wednesday night,the group held “Canso bees,” for members to hammer, weld, shape and straighten bits of the mangled plane. Others tracked down leads for old Canso parts and mechanical expertise.

Word of the project eventually spread, attracting other residents of the town and members of the aviation community to lend a hand in various ways, while a charitable organization called the Fairview Aircraft Restoration Society was formed to drum up donations and interest.

“We soon realized the project was too big and too important for just a few people,” said Doug Roy, one of the original six who is now serving as president of the restoration society.

The work eventually paid off, culminating in Sunday’s first official flight of the restored aircraft. When it left the Fairview runway shortly after 11 a.m. — in front of an estimated 1,000 people — it became just the 13th Canso in the world still considered airworthy out of the 3,305 that were originally made.

Wieben said the group initially considered just leaving the Canso as a static display. But the members felt it was important to share a piece of Canadian heritage with as many people as possible.

In many ways, the story of the Canso is the story of the country about to celebrate its 150th birthday, Wieben said.

Besides its wartime duties, the 74-year-old aircraft had a long history serving almost every region of the country — from installing radar sites in British Columbia, to hauling fish in northern Manitoba, to fighting fires in Newfoundland.

“All those people who were involved with it are such an important part of Canadian history and it just covers such a broad aspect of the Canadian people,” Wieben said. “We have been very determined from Day 1 that it be a Canadian heritage airplane for the long term.”

For Roy, the tale of the Canso’s restoration is itself a quintessential bit of Canadiana. All throughout its rescue and refurbishment, the Fairview group was sustained by unsolicited help from people they met all across the country.

Among the biggest gifts were the barge company in Inuvik that transported the plane halfway to Fairview, the efforts of 85-year-old Rollie Hammerstedt of Kenora, Ont., donating four weeks of his time each year to guide the restoration work, and the village of St. Anthony, N.L., providing a pair of working engines from a grounded Canso.

“It just continued on, with people willing to donate their time and money,” Roy said. “I think people just got caught up in the spirit of it,”

Besides Burns, Sunday’s event in Fairview attracted five other honorary guests who had history with Cansos. Among them was 99-year-old James McCrae, who survived being shot down by a U-boat in the North Atlantic.

Like Burns, he also got into the cockpit of Canso 11094 a few times, including his last two flights of the war with 162 Squadron.

“They were a little heavy on the controls, but once you got used to them, everybody had a lot of time for them,” said McCrae, who was born near Elnora, Alta., but has lived most his life in Yarmouth, N.S.

“Over the years, attachments grow between pilots and Canso. When I heard they were going to (restore) this, I was very interested and I wanted to come. I just didn’t know if I would last as long as the Canso.”

The Canso flies again.

Peter Austin-Smith, who flew Canso 11094 in the 1950s, shared McCrae’s assessment of the old plane.

‘It was a different experience than any other aircraft. They kind of wobbled through the air,” said Austin-Smith, from Wolfville, N.S. “It was basically brute force you used to fly it.”

From here on, the idea is to treat the plane as a “living museum” that will travel to air shows and communities around western and northern Canada, Wieben said.

The restoration society is also hoping to attract other heritage airplanes and use the airport at Fairview as a base.

Never ones to sit still, the farmers — most in their 60s and 70s — have already purchased their next project: a tiny, 1946 Aeronca Chief.

“The Canso has been a big project and a long project,” Wieben said, laughing. “For the next one, we decided we should go to the smallest airplane we possibly could find.”


Timeline of Canso 11094:

1943: Canso 11094 is built in Quebec, and put into service by the Royal Canadian Air Force hunting submarines and protecting naval convoys in the North Atlantic.

Postwar, 1945-2000: The aircraft is repurposed for other duties in Canada, including installing radar sites in B.C. and Alberta, hauling fish in northern Manitoba and fighting forest fires in Newfoundland.

Hal Burns, a WWII pilot of the Canso, poses in front of the refurbished Canso.

2001: In use as a water bomber in the North, the Canso crashes into a lake near Inuvik during a training exercise. Though no one is killed, the plane suffers considerable damage and sinks. The aircraft’s owner, Buffalo Airways, later pulls the plane out of the lake and leaves it after removing its engines and instruments.

2006: Fairview farmer and vintage airplane enthusiast Don Wieben learns about the abandoned Canso, and agrees to buy it ”as is, where is” from Buffalo Airways.

April 2008: Wieben, along with five friends from Fairview — Joe Gans, Brian Wilson, Norbert Luken, Henry Dechant and Doug Roy — stage an elaborate rescue mission to the Arctic. Working in -35 C cold and limited daylight for three weeks, the group mounts the plane on a pair of handmade skis, drags it across the tundra and through Inuvik to put it on a Mackenzie River barge.

October 2008: The Canso is transported south by barge to Hay River, N.W.T., from where Wieben’s group drives it back to Fairview.

2008-2013: In between farming duties, the “Canso crew” works on restoring the aircraft. “Canso bees” are held most Wednesday nights in Wilson’s shop. Old Canso parts, expertise and funding are hard to come by, so the Fairview Aircraft Restoration Society charity is formed to help raise money and interest.

May 2013: The Great Canadian Aircraft Engine Exchange is launched to St. Anthony, N.L., some 6,800 km away. The town, which has a memorial Canso on display that still has a pair of working engines, agrees to let the Fairview group take them back to Alberta. In exchange, the farmers give the memorial a set of inoperative display engines.

May 2016: The Canso is moved out of Wilson’s shop, the wing and engines are mounted on, and the plane is wheeled down the road to the Fairview Airport.

June 18, 2017: The first official flight of the restored Canso takes place at the Fairview airport.

(Story Sourced from Keith Gerein, Edmonton Sun, with edits)