Anniversary of Mt. Slesse air crash

The 50th anniversary of a Trans Canada Airlines (TCA – now Air Canada) North Star aircraft crashing into a peak near Chilliwack, killing all 62 aboard, fell on Dec 9, 2006.

Disaster on Mt. Slesse: The Story of Western Canada’s Worst Air Crash by Betty O’Keefe and Ian MacDonald has been released to coincide with the anniversary of the crash. The publisher Caitlin Press describes the book as follows:

Mount Slesse, a jagged 2,500-metre peak near Chilliwack, BC, known locally as “The Fang”, lived up to its evil reputation on December 9, 1956, when Trans-Canada Airlines Flight 810 slammed into it, killing all 62 aboard. For five months nobody knew what happened. Flight 810 had just disappeared into the night. Adding to the sensation was the fact that the flight carried five professional football players fresh from the CFL ALL-Star Game in Vancouver and a mystery man by the name of Kwan Song who was rumoured to be carrying a sizeable fortune in cash. Finally, on May 12, 1957, a diminutive female mountaineer named Elfrida Pigou discovered the gruesome crash site, setting off a stampede of macabare treasure hunters. 176pp.

It can be ordered direct from Crown Publications for $21.95.

Pigou herself later died in a climbing accident on Mt. Waddington, and was subequently commemorated by an eponymous mountain in the Coast Range, which she was the first to successfully climb. The Chilliwack Progress piece on the 50th Anniversary commemoration of the air disasater interviews Pigou’s niece.

The search for the crash site is recounted by former Vancouver coroner Glen McDonald (who held an inquest on the mountain) in his memoir How Come I’m Dead?, still available from Hancock House.

In the Globe and Mail (Dec 9, 2006, page F9, “Spirits in the Sky”), Margaret McBurney, daughter of a passenger on the ill-fated flight, offers a personal point of view about appropriate use, or non-use, of the crash site, which has become more accessible as logging operations push roads to the tree line. She is upset about disrespectful loggers, trophy hunters and gawkers desecrating the site. McBurney and other friends and relatives of the victims were instrumental in having 580 hectares declared a protected provincial heritage site in 1995. A hiking trail leads to a plaque and memorial cairn, which offer a view of the spectacular bowl below the northeast buttress of Slesse.

The National Film Board of Canada series Weather Untamed devoted part of an episode “Killer Fog” to the crash.

TCA North Star
Canadair North Star (Air Canada photo)

The Canadair North Star was built on a Douglas DC-4 airframe, using custom avionics and notoriously noisy Rolls-Royce Merlin 622, 1760 hp, Vee engines. An unpressurized version was used by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) into the mid-1960s. The TCA aircraft originally sat 40 but in 1955 the airline changed the interior to accommodate 52 passengers for flights with First Class seating, or 62 if operated as an all Economy Class aircraft. One of TCA’s 23 North Stars made the first non-stop flight from Vancouver to Halifax. The plane, about the same size as a modern Bombardier Q400 (Dash 8), had a service ceiling of 36,000 feet and a cruising speed of 325 mph.

Mt. SlesseMt. Slesse
(View a full-size commemorative photo of Mt. Slesse as seen from Chilliwack, taken on Dec. 9, 2006 by Paul Enns.)

The flight was bound for Toronto via Calgary. The cause of the crash was eventually attributed to the failure of one engine, which slowed the doomed the aircraft as it attempted a return to Vancouver in heavy turbulence and icing conditions. An engine fire after the plane had climbed to 21,000 ft. to avoid turbulence, forced the 3-man crew to shut it down and they reported difficulty maintaining altitude after turning back, eventually requesting clearance to descend to 10,000 ft. after passing Hope. Vancouver air traffic control cleared Flight 810 to cross the mountain range at 8000 feet or above, the final communication with the plane. Although it’s unknown exactly how the plane came to be so low, or 15 km. south of its intended course, investigators cited as contributing factors known subsidence, severe turbulence, and probable moderate to severe icing at lower levels in the area. It missed clearing Slesse’s third peak by only 10 metres.

Although the crash of Flight 810 remains Western Canada’s worst, TCA/Air Canada suffered greater loss of life in later crashes in other locations.

Table of fatal TCA/Air Canada Accidents
Date Location Aircraft Fatalities
Apr 28, 1947 Vancouver, BC Lockheed Lodestar 15 – wreckage found near Mt. Elsay in 1994
Apr 6, 1954 Moose Jaw, SK Canadair North Star 35 after a mid-air collision with an RCAF trainer, including one fatality on the ground
July 9, 1956 Windsor, ON Vickers Viscount 1 passenger (of 35) killed after engine failure threw a propeller blade into the cabin
Oct 10, 1962 Bagotville, QC Vickers Viscount 2 after ground collision with an RCAF jet fighter that was prematurely cleared for take-off; the fighter crew survived after gaining enough altitude to eject from their burning jet
Nov 29, 1963 Montreal, QC DC-8 118 due to undetermined cause, possibly icing and/or equipment malfunction, pilot error
May 19, 1967 Ottawa, ON DC-8 3-man crew died in crash while landing during a training exercise
Apr 7, 1969 Sept-Iles, QC Vickers Viscount 1 (of 21) due to loss of control during evacuation after engine fire and emergency landing
July 5, 1970 Toronto, ON DC-8 109 after premature deployment of ground spoilers during landing. The pilot aborted the landing but lost an engine on hard contact. The plane remained aloft for another 3 minutes but lost a wing in a series of fires and explosions and crashed before it could manage another landing attempt.
June 26, 1978 Toronto, ON DC-9 2 (of 107) after takeoff aborted when a blown tire damaged an engine and landing gear
June 2, 1983 Cincinnati, OH DC-9 23 (of 46) of smoke inhalation during emergency landing prompted by a lavatory fire of unknown origin
Table by Max Burley

Canadian Pacific Airlines, later Canadian Airlines International and eventually absorbed by Air Canada, had 10 fatal accidents between 1949-1968 that killed a total of 235 people. (Other sources: Aviation Safety Network; airdisasters.com; CBC Archives)

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