For more than 75 years, Crystal Island on Artillery Lake, NWT, hid amidst its brush and rock a wreck with no name.
As a young man, Gordon Piro flew over the crash site with his dad, and visited the plane’s remains. Much of the fuselage’s frame was still intact, with pieces of its wooden wings and its old metal fittings. Now, Piro is vice-president of the Fox Moth Society—a Yellowknife group dedicated to preserving aviation history—and he could no longer handle leaving the plane and its story lost in the woods. But to rescue it, he’d first have to identify what exactly it was. Sunken ships are fair game for salvaging, but plane wrecks belong to the owner or the owner’s insurance company—even if it’s been crashed for more than 70 years—until a bill of sale is written.
Worried a forest fire could consume its remains, Piro photographed the wreckage in 1992. A decade later, the photos helped Bob Cameron, a Yukon pilot/aviation historian, pin down the aircraft as a rare Fairchild FC-2 Razorback—the model being the first cabin airplane flown in the North. “Everyone involved was pleasantly surprised to find the aircraft had Royal Canadian Air Force history, even more startling was the fact there were no models of this aircraft remaining,” Piro says. They knew it belonged to the air force because of the mystery plane's Lynx engine; the RCAF’s six Fairchilds were the only Razorbacks with Lynx engines. This was good news because it meant that the plane did not have a private owner; a rescue was plausible.
Cameron contacted Gordon Emberley, a founder of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada, and Emberley tasked Don McNaughton with searching out any archival information that might help identify the John Doe airplane. After false leads and “miles of old microfiche reels,” says Piro, McNaughton finally hit the jackpot: the plane had been flying out of Fort Fitzgerald, Alberta, most likely detecting forest fires or conducting aerial surveying, when it crashed on a clear September 27, 1930. Another airplane was flying with them and its pilot watched the crash unfold from the air. He flew the bumped, bruised, but otherwise healthy crew home the same day.
The plane now had a name and story, but moving 800 pounds of beached machine to Winnipeg was a daunting task. Thankfully the Fox Moth Society didn’t have to do all the heavy lifting on their own. In fact, benevolent businesses did them favour after favour—Emberley estimates $30,000 worth—nearly free of charge. He says the society couldn’t have recovered the plane without that support.
The plane was picked up by a helicopter, then sent by barge and truck to the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada in Winnipeg in 2008. Today, its new wings are constructed and more than half of the woodwork on the fuselage has been assembled. The museum was forced to recreate many blueprints by looking at old photographs of the aircraft. Now, the final step is a wooden replica of a Lynx engine.
Emberley plans to head to Fort Fitzgerald this year with Piro and "Buffalo Joe" McBryan to visit the point from which the plane made its last departure. The refurbishment of the Razorback is almost complete, and the men who made it possible want to take in its history one last time before the Razorback gets a new life in the Winnipeg museum.