Excerpt – View From the Tower

View From the Tower – My Port Hardy Years and West Coast Aviation Adventures

By Grant B. Evans

In the winter of 1960, a Pacific Western Airlines C-46 ran off the end of runway 10 at Port Hardy while making an emergency landing. The twin engine Curtis airliner was returning to the airport  in the dark after a scheduled departure for Comox in the late afternoon. On the climb to cruising altitude, the starboard engine failed and was subsequently shut down. The propeller was feathered as part of the procedure to reduce drag.

On landing, the aircraft could not be stopped before it reached the end of the runway. Skidding over the rough terrain of rock and tree stumps on the approach to the opposite runway, it came to rest near the Keogh River. The aircraft’s undercarriage was torn away and the airframe was severely damaged. The C-46 was a write-off, but miraculously there were no serious injuries to the passengers or the crew.

The accident took place the day before we first arrived at Port Hardy from Vancouver. As we disembarked that morning from PWA’s first daily scheduled DC-3 flight, PWA  crews were already in the process of obscuring all company markings from the heavily-damaged aircraft to avoid negative publicity.

Following an exhaustive examination of the incident, the Department of Transport Accident Investigation team concluded that the captain, Harry Bray, had done his work well enough. He did not lose his life or his job.

The Keogh River empties into the Queen Charlotte Strait near the northern end of Vancouver Island’s east coast. The main runway of Port Hardy’s airport parallels the shoreline immediately north of the river mouth. The runway is aligned with the prevailing wind that in winter howls from the southeast. On a clear day, the view across the straits to the snow-capped mountains of the mainland is spectacular. It was on such a day that we arrived.

Boyz in the Tower

Dave had an impressive background. He had been a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and had flown the gigantic Sunderland flying boat—one of the most powerful, effective flying boats of the Second World War. Dave spoke with affection about the aircraft and how it was much loved by her crews.

The Sunderland was built in Britain by Short Bros. and was named for the English city of the same name. It was used extensively against the German U-boats during the Battle of the Atlantic. These aircraft were variously armed with bombs, mines, and depth chargers. Browning machine guns in a number of turrets defended the aircraft. The all-metal, mostly flush-riveted ship was, according to Dave, very comfortable. It had two decks, with six bunks in the lower level, featured a yacht-style porcelain flush toilet, a galley with a kerosene stove, and running water. The Sunderlands were also equipped with an anchoring winch and a small machine shop for in-flight repairs. Patrols could be up to 14 hours long with crews of seven to 11 or more men.

Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for unspoken acts of valour, Dave played down the honour with typical humility. To me, he was not only a war hero, but truly an officer and a gentleman, right off the pages of a Neville Shute novel.

Boyz in the Tower

In l958 I began flying instruction at the Vancouver airport. My first instructor was Helen Harrison. In early photos she had been a dazzling young woman and one of the infamous female World War Two pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) . Military aircraft of all types from multi-engine bombers to fighters, including the Spitfire, were ferried by the ATA from location to location and from factories to allied airbases.

Helen had a reputation as a “whiz bang momma and a wampus kitty,” as well as a first-rate flying instructor on assignment with the RAF. According to Dave Knox, she had her way with many a cadet after wild nights of drinking in the canteen, but she was always on the flight line ready to go in the morning. Sadly, she never made any attempt to seduce me. However, she was showing her age when I knew her as an instructor with the BC Aero Club. Job opportunities involving flying were not good for women after the war, no matter how impressive their qualifications.

The Territory Wild

The skill, knowledge, and experience of these bush pilots was beyond belief. Navigating in reduced visibility, they seemed to know every rock and tree in the wilderness areas, where everything looked the same to me. Flying over water, whipped into formidable whitecaps, and through bone-rattling air turbulence was a common occurrence to them—a white-knuckle experience for the rest of us.

The remoteness and isolation of some of the floating logging camps was astonishing to me. The docking skills of these pilots in tight spots was amazing. I had completed the training for a float endorsement for my own pilot’s license, and, when it came to docking, I was always as nervous as a cow being milked with a cold pair of pliers. Calculating the wind and the water current and the direction of drift of the aircraft must be done quickly. Then the engine needed to be shut down while coasting to a place where you could, hopefully with dignity, step onto a dock, rope in hand, and secure the aircraft. Just the idea of damaging a fragile wing or control surface that would make the airplane unflyable gave me the willies. No doubt about it, there is no substitute for experience.

The Voodoo

The pilot must have been a young hotshot. He came in smoking fast at tree top level over the residential area. About midfield, he pulled the nose up into a steep climb, and, with a great boom, poured on the afterburners. He was out of sight in seconds. Then all hell broke loose.

Thomas Point

Suddenly, I was startled by a loud noise behind me. I recognized the sound as the explosive blowhole of a whale, breaking the surface of the water.

I was frozen with fear. On my left, close enough to reach out and touch, was a huge black fish. The markings on the side and under its head were stark white. As it smoothly passed, the dorsal fin towered above me. The eye took me in.

I have never felt so vulnerable. I knew that I was his or hers for the taking.

Gracefully, the animal arched and descended, disappearing under the water. I never saw it resurface.

St. Michael’s Residential School

Leaving the U’mista Cultural Society, visitors are again confronted by the deserted residential school. Some band elders have wanted this building to never be demolished. “Out of sight, out of mind,” they have said, feeling that visitors to the cultural society will be curious about the abandoned building and its history, and that the building itself would serve as a monument to its dark past.

Jack Pickup

Medical examinations with Pickup usually consisted of about a half an hour of hangar flying (aviation BS) while he smoked sweet-smelling cigarillos with white plastic tips or cigarettes from a long holder like the Penguin character from Batman. Once or twice, he actually had me read the eye chart. Near the end of my allotted time, he would growl something to the effect that I should get the hell out of there, because he was a busy man and had work to do.

The Rain

Winters on the North Island are long, wet, and windy. Savage gales blow from the southeast as weather systems off the north Pacific Ocean thrust past counterclockwise, dumping heavy rains. The term ”West Coast rain forest” describes this region well. The shadow of winter is sodden and pervasive. There is no respite, and the darkness gets into your bones.

For months I would open the control tower in the black of night, walking home after each day’s shift in the gathering gloom. When a gale was blowing, the single-glazed window panels of the tower would bow in menacingly on the windward side. We would nervously watch the wind speed indicator and the bowed-in window panes. If they were to blow in, our bodies wouldn’t even slow the shards down.

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