Excerpts – View From the Tower Revised Edition

Chapter One – Arriving

There had been an incident at Port Hardy Airport the day before we first arrived from Vancouver.

The next morning as we disembarked at Port Hardy from Pacific Western Airlines’ (PWA) first daily scheduled DC-3 flight; a crew was already in the process of obscuring all company markings from a heavily damaged PWA C-46 aircraft, presumably to avoid negative publicity.

On the evening of January 29th 1960, the Pacific Western Airlines C-46 (CF-PWD) had run off the end of runway 10 at Port Hardy Airport while making an emergency landing. The twin-engine Curtiss airliner was returning in the dark to Port Hardy Airport after having made a scheduled departure for Comox in the late afternoon. While climbing to cruising altitude, the starboard engine had abruptly failed. As part of a textbook procedure to reduce drag, the engine was shut down and the propeller feathered.

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, the aircraft came to rest on its belly near the banks of the Keogh River. The 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 passengers or crew.

The Keogh River empties into the Queen Charlotte Strait near the northern end of Vancouver Island’s east coast. The main runway (10- 28) of Port Hardy Airport parallels the shoreline immediately north of the river mouth. The runway is aligned with the prevailing wind which typically 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.

In the months following the C-46 incident, an exhaustive examination by the Department of Transport Accident Investigation team concluded that the captain, Harry Bray, had done his work well. He did not lose his life or his job.

Stu Leslie, a middle-aged PWA pilot, was first officer (co-pilot) on the flight. I learned later on that he was often on the Port Hardy run. Stu was by choice a career first officer; he declined the responsibilities that came with captaincy. Details of his background were unclear, but I remember hearing some mention of him “flying the hump” in Burma during the Second World War.

Stu was British, not a tall man, a little on the chubby side, and jolly by nature. His complexion was pink, particularly his cheeks and nose where broken blood vessels were near the surface, giving him a merry look like a beardless Coca Cola Santa Claus. He chain-smoked British Consols cigarettes: It seemed he always had one lit and hanging from his lower lip, ashes spilling onto his blue serge uniform where he would infrequently brush them away.

Captain Harry Bray, Stu Leslie, and their ill-fated C-46 had made a routine takeoff from runway 10 at Port Hardy Airport. Before they reached cruising altitude, the starboard engine spluttered to a standstill, the decision was immediately taken to return to their point of departure.

In order to maintain flying speed, increased power to the port engine had to be applied. The engine overheated, the situation was uneasy. Predictably, Stu had a British Consol between his lips, and ash on his lapel. He was doing Harry’s bidding like an extra pair of hands.

Suddenly, there was a great bang as the one functioning engine backfired, shooting flame. It coughed violently before again smoothing out. The unflappable Stu took the cigarette from his lips and turning to Harry, yelled in his best British intonation, “A farting horse is a working horse.”

Through the blackness over Queen Charlotte Strait, the aircraft descended on a downwind leg to runway 10. The gear and flaps were lowered on a tense crosswind leg and on final, with wheels down and flaps extended, they were committed to land. The runway and approach lights were glowing brightly, the approach and landing were made by visual reference.

The approach was a bit high and the crippled C-46 landed long, running off the end of the runway and into the toolies. As was customary after landing, Stu reported on company frequency that they were “on” at 1752 but that he was “unable to provide a ramp time.”

Chapter Three –  The Airport and the Community

In the months following our arrival, I noticed that many of the DOT people stationed at Port Hardy Airport could not wait to leave. It was as though the word was out that we were near the end of our pleasurable if isolated, lifestyle. Suspicion at any level that somebody is about to pull the rug out from under you is about as un-nerving as it gets.

What none of us knew was that most of us were mere caretakers of an old airport that would need to reinvent itself for a new age. Governments are duty bound to be aware of trends, applying new technologies and efficiency wherever possible. War surplus airports were tax dollars flying recklessly out the window. There were people in Ottawa whose job it was to identify anyone who would not be needed.

Unquestionably, the station was of a bygone time for a bygone purpose. An unknown future was dreaded, impending changes, unbearable for the majority. For the less conscious, those blinded with distractions, it was tolerable, even enjoyable. For those who felt vulnerable—and there were many—taking any opportunity to leave meant some measure of control over personal destiny.

The day was coming when scarcely a trace of the old RCAF station would remain. The new airport would be sterile, contemporary, efficient, and geared to whatever aviation needs are current. The old buildings would likely be demolished, or sold and moved off the airport grounds entirely. Where there was once a community, there would be a vacant field.

The Buddhists avow that the main characteristic of reality is impermanence. “If things are going badly, change is coming. If things are going well, change is coming.”

 Port Hardy Airport will certainly change. Perhaps there would no longer be a control tower at the airport. I too, hoped to be long gone before any of the big changes took place.

Chapter Twenty-seven – The Return to ZT

A door in my office opened into an unused, smaller, sparsely furnished room. It had a large window with an expansive east facing view of the ocean and mainland mountains. I gave keys to my friend Art Jung, a PWA captain, so that he could use the room, as he wished, during layovers. I understood his need for quiet and privacy. We knew each other from my first posting, I liked him very much and I believe it was mutual.

 To me, Art Jung was the best of the best of airline captains. He was dignified in a quiet, humble, understated way, always immaculately and impeccably dressed, he instilled confidence. The first manual I ever had on flying, called From the Ground Up, contrasted the made-up characters of Captain Wise and Flatspin Fumble. Art was the epitome of Captain Wise; conducting himself with professionalism and distinction.

During the era of the Peace River power projects, PWA purchased a used DC-6B. It was their largest, most powerful aircraft at that time. It is safe to assume that the aircraft was obtained specifically for contract to various construction companies of the massive power projects.

PWA, scheduled flights with the DC-6 from Vancouver to Hudson’s Hope via Port Hardy. The flight departed Vancouver each morning, except for Sundays, and the reverse schedule was in the afternoon.

Art was one of a small number of PWA captains fully qualified on the DC-6B. For this reason, he was often captain on this run. He extended an invitation for me to come along on the portion of the flight from Port Hardy to Hudson’s Hope and return, whenever I could get time off.

It was my great pleasure to take advantage of the opportunity, and we set the date. Going aboard the DC-6 was in itself an exciting experience for me. The sheer size of the aircraft was startling. Art gave me the VIP treatment and set up the “jump-seat” for me between the captain on the left and the co-pilot seated on the right. He gave me a headset that enabled me to hear radio and crew conversations. The start-up, taxiing, and run-up were time consuming and complex, accomplished with the use of long checklists. We rumbled down the runway on takeoff and began the climb on course.

When we reached cruising altitude, Art had the first officer give me the right-hand seat. I was invited (and happily accepted) to manually fly the aircraft until it was time to start the letdown. There were many cumulus (clouds of vertical development) over the mountains that summer day. Flying this behemoth in these conditions involved frequent turns to avoid flying through clouds in which there was sure to be turbulence. Art cautioned me to keep the turns shallow, or the passengers would feel it. It was mind-boggling to get the heft of such a large and heavy aircraft.

The layover in Hudson’s Hope was short, but long enough to be knocked for six by the immensity of the dam project. Human endeavours on this scale leave me gobsmacked.

Upon reaching cruising altitude after our departure from Hudson’s Hope, Art again had me at the controls of the aircraft when it was struck by lightning. The cumulus clouds of the morning had become heavy cumulus and cumulonimbus in the afternoon. Alarms and horns went off and the lights dimmed, but then everything returned to normal. It gave me a fright, much to Art’s amusement.

Perhaps it was the lightning strike, but somehow the trip back to Port Hardy was even more exciting than going; everything seemed sharper, especially the view of Mt. Waddington (the highest mountain in B.C.) which was magnificent as we flew over it. That day will live on in my memory.