Fatal flights

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Nancy MacPhee
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Plaques to be unveiled honouring those who lost their lives in three tragic training flights

SUMMERSIDE — It was set to be a normal training flight, setting off from RCAF Station Summerside, making its way Goose Bay, N.L., and then return home. 

Barry Rowan (left), Al Poirier and Stan Surette, members of the Aviation Heritage Society of P.E.I., get ready to install three plaques remembering the crew of three fatal training flights out of then RCAF Station Summerside in the 1950s. A dedication ceremony is set for Friday at 2 p.m. at the Aviation Heritage Park at Slemon Park.

On board was Flight Cadet Frank Smith, two weeks shy of graduating from flight school, following in his big brother Jack’s footsteps.

But Smith would never see graduation day.

The routine flight turned tragic.

Smith’s plane, on its way back to Summerside, disappeared.

Five days later the wreckage was found. There were no survivors.

“They all lost their lives,” said Al Poirier, Aviation Heritage Society of P.E.I. president.

The crew of CC-129 Dakota VC 430 — young Smith, a navigation student from Shelburne, N.S.; navigation student Flight Cadet Gerald Higgins of Gatineau Point, Que.; pilot, Flying Officer Joseph Rodier of Montreal, Que.; and co-pilot, Flying Officer Owen Foster — will be honoured Friday, as plaques are unveiled to commemorate three fatal crashes of flight training crews from the Summerside base in the 1950s.

Organizing the dedication ceremony is the Aviation Heritage Society of P.E.I., keepers of the Aviation Heritage Park at Slemon Park, which opened in 2011.

On the morning of May 14, 1951, the Dakota took flight from Summerside, arrived in Goose Bay, circled the tower, and radioed their intent to return home.

Hours went by. The radio was quiet. No word came from the Dakota and its crew.

A large-scale search was launched immediately.

Days later, on May 19, 1951, 130 miles southeast of Goose Bay, the Dakota’s wreckage, along with the bodies of its crew, were found.

The men’s remains were flown back to Summerside and young Smith’s body taken to Shelburne where his grieving family gave him a Christian burial.

“They are part of the history of the 51 years of operation at this base,” Poirier said, touching on the importance of remembering the flight crews and two others also being recognized. “It’s all history of the air force. What we are trying to do here is make sure people are aware of what happened here, right here in Summerside. The airport was the lifeblood of the community at the time. There was only fishing and farming and the base here.”

A plaque will also be erected to remember the crew of the Harvard IV 20296.

On Aug. 11, 1952, the Harvard took off from RCAF Summerside on a training flight.

On board were Flying Officer and pilot Donald Laxson of Absestos, Que., and Flying Officer Joseph Labonte, a navigation student from Point Rouge, Que.

That aircraft was never hard from again. A massive search was conducted.

“They searched all over New Brunswick and the western part of P.E.I.,” said Poirier.

After a week, the search was scaled back. Then, on Jan. 27, 1953, the aircraft was taken off the books, with the note, “struck off due to termination of search.”

Years later, the aircraft’s remains — but not those of the men — were found submerged in the waters off Prince Edward Island.

The third tragic crash being remembered occurred on Oct. 9, 1953.

The CT-128 Expeditor 1580 left RCAF Station Summerside on a ferry flight to RCAF Station Winnipeg on Oct. 8. On board were Flying Officer and pilot John Holten of Vancouver, B.C., and radar tech, LAW Joan Moody of Morris, Man.

Moody was catching a lift so that she could visit her father in Morris.

The first leg of the flight went smoothly, with the Expeditor landing in Ottawa, departing the next morning for RCAF Station North Bay, second leg of the journey.

The plane disappeared, its wreckage found in a lake 25 miles east of its destination.

Moody and Holten’s bodies were later recovered and returned to their hometowns.

“It was such violent crash,” said Poirier.

Friday’s ceremony starts at 2 p.m. at the Aviation Heritage Park.

For more about the park, visit www.airforceparkpei.ca. To learn about the aviation society, visit www.aviationheritagepei.ca.

 

nmacphee@journalpioneer.com

 

Organizations: Aviation Heritage Society of P.E.I., Heritage Society, Harvard IV 20296 RCAF Station Summerside RCAF Station Winnipeg

Geographic location: Summerside, Shelburne, Aviation Heritage Park Goose Bay Gatineau Point Montreal Slemon Park Absestos Point Rouge, Que New Brunswick Prince Edward Island Vancouver, B.C. Ottawa North Bay

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