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Lancaster FM159

The writer of this account was an F/O Navigator
on his first squadron ops tour between January, 1954 and December, 1955
during which time he accumulated over 1100 hours on MP operations.
He spent over 50 hours on the subject search and, although considerable time has elapsed,
the memories (with perhaps a few insignificant inaccuracies) are quite vivid.

Looking for a Lost York from FM159
by Harley Lang

While the DEW Line was partially operational at this time, construction was still in full swing. This meant that every aircraft that could be pressed into service was used to fly freight and personnel to and from the Arctic Coast. One of these aircraft was an Avro York operated by Associated Airways out of Edmonton (XD) with a crew of two pilots, one of whom was believed to be a WW II Polish (?) flying ace. In late September this aircraft was to fly either from Jenny Lind or Hat Island (near the Boothia Peninsula) to Yellowknife (ZF) with a back-haul of empty fuel drums. The York took off shortly before dark and headed for ZF using the radio compass and visual cues for navigation. Now while the coast line was fairly well mapped, there was a two-hundred mile segment of the projected route that was unmapped and, indeed the aeronautical topo's of that era were marked "Unmapped" excepting for a vague outline of Contwoyto Lake enroute. During DEW Line construction, a low-powered radio beacon was located on the shore of Contwoyto but reliability was highly questionable. It should be remembered that the York was probably relying on the old DRC compass for heading direction but in the "Area of Magnetic Compass Uncertainty", the best of compasses is of marginal utility. The compass function was probably further degraded by the cargo of steel fuel drums which filled the fuselage aft of the main spar. The situation was further exacerbated by an unreliable radio compass. The HF radio was completely operational throughout the flight and many transmissions were exchanged with ground stations. The weather was fine with a bright starry night. Nevertheless, with so many odds stacked against them, they became lost somewhere enroute to Yellowknife.

On recognizing their predicament, the pilots made good HF contact with XD, ZF and YQ (Churchill) but with the excellent radio reception that night it was impossible to even roughly triangulate the aircraft's position based upon received signal strengths at the various ground stations monitoring the flight. After expending most of its fuel, the York's captain decided to crash land while he still had all four engines operating and full control of the aircraft. As he voiced his intentions, he described the terrain below as having a few spruce trees and many lakes with rocky hills in all directions.
At least this would tell searchers that he was inside or at least, very near the tree line running from Inuvik to Churchill and not over the open tundra. It was further reported that migrating caribou could be seen in the area. Since the land was very rocky and the lakes were ice-covered, the crew elected to ditch on a "long lake oriented north west, close to shore (on the port side) and on a north-westerly heading". HF radio contact was maintained until it was masked by the hills on final approach. A search had already been initiated with the first action being a broadened "track crawl" in an attempt to spot a flare or signal fire from the downed crew. RCAF SAR aircraft were on the scene before first light.

On 02 October, two 407 Sqn Lancs were dispatched to aid in the search; one was FM 883 with F/O Bob Magee as captain and F/O Lang as navigator. The crews set to work that same evening, as shown in a copy of the nav's log. The weather was fine throughout the search. Crews lived in construction company Quonset huts at the ZF airport with briefings being held in a newly constructed hangar on the field. As the search area expanded, more aircraft were involved. Since FM 883 was due for a "major" back in Comox, F/O Al Hinke arrived on 08 Oct with FM 159 as a replacement. Late in the afternoon on 09 October, an over-flying El Dorado Inc DC-3 spotted the York on a small lake just north of Uranium City ... She was certainly well off track but only 10 minutes later would have had FM 159 directly overhead while following an "expanding square search" of an assigned area just inside the NWT.

The York had broken it's back aft of the main spar during a difficult ditching with the nose and tail both resting on the lake bottom and the fuselage break protruding about four feet above the water surface. Half of the wing aft of the engines (with full flaps extended) was above water as was about three feet of the empennage. One pilot was sitting on the extended flap with his feet dangling over the water. He was unable even to wave as FM 159 did a fly past after radioing the situation to search HQ. The other pilot had succumbed to his injuries and exposure and his body was tucked into the angle between the wing and port flap. A float plane from Uranium City was at the scene within a short time to complete the rescue.

It was later reported that after the ditching on less than an inch of ice, the water proved to be too cold during the day to swim the two hundred feet to shore and the ice that formed overnight would not support a person. For similar reasons, and despite numerous attempts, the survival gear carried aboard the York could not be reached. The frustration of the pilots can well be imagined as hope of a rescue faded and the effects of hypothermia and injuries set in. It was ironic that large numbers of caribou could be seen wandering about on the nearby shore during the week or so the York crew awaited rescue.

On 10 Oct 55, FM 159 and her crew returned to Comox for a short rest and a resumption of routine MP work over the eastern Pacific approaches to North America.

It is sincerely hoped that this account is essentially accurate and that the writer will be forgiven any memory lapses that may have been brought on by the intervening 50 years since these flights. Please note that there has been no attempt either to denigrate the York or her crew nor to gloss over the experience of the many people and organizations involved in any way with the incident. The writer is but a small cog in the very fine machine that is Canadian aviation and, as such, cannot be held to account for uncorroborated minutiae experienced by others so long ago.

Bomber Command Museum of Canada