How a team of amateur explorers and an underwater robot laid to rest the 'Ghost of Baker Lake'

Local legend has it that an aircraft disappeared in northern Canada nearly half a century ago, never to be seen again — until this August, when an Alberta man and his team discovered it at the bottom of a lake.

Steven Hanulik was the first to lay eyes on the missing airplane in nearly half a century

Steven Hanulik was part of the four-person team that discovered the Bristol Freighter CF-UME nearly half a century after the plane disappeared into Baker Lake, Yukon. (Left: Bob Cameron, Right: Rebecca Kelly/CBC)

The Yukon legend of the Ghost of Baker Lake captivated 10-year-old Steven Hanulik from the first moment he heard it.

It goes something like this:

In the spring of 1969, an aircraft disappeared through the ice at Baker Lake, never to be seen again.

The plane was hauling fuel to support mining operations in the area. On what turned out to be its final landing, the starboard main wheel punctured the frozen surface of the lake, and the plane sank into the icy depths.

The Bristol Freighter CF-UME was hauling from Whitehorse to Baker Lake to support mining operations when it sank in 1969. (Rebecca Kelly/CBC)

The crew of the Bristol Freighter CF-UME made it out alive, but the rapid rate of ice melt forced them to abandon their plane.

Baker Lake is about 60 kilometres northeast of Whitehorse, Yukon.

As a boy living in Whitehorse, Hanulik dreamed of being part of a submarine crew that would one day dive down and locate the wreckage. In 1995, a jealous Hanulik eagerly followed the news as a group of explorers launched an expedition to find the Bristol, albeit an unsuccessful one.

Today, 41-year-old Hanulik lives as a filmmaker in High River, Alta. Last month, he joined three others from Yukon on a mission to find the aircraft with the help of an underwater robot.

They were prepared for days of searching. It took them 45 minutes.

The discovery

Finding Bristol Freighter CF-UME had also been a goal of the other expedition crew members, sonar operator Doug Davidge and pilots Kyle and Sara Cameron — in some cases for decades. 

In 2017, they made a handshake deal to attempt to find the sunken airplane the following summer.

A local historian supplied them with photographs from 1969 of the Bristol on the ice, as well as comparative panoramic photos of the area from 1995. By lining up the landmarks, the crew determined a fairly accurate location from which to begin their search.

On Aug. 5, their small float plane landed on the lake with a remotely operated underwater vehicle on board, commonly called an ROV.

The OpenROV Trident used in the expedition was made in California. It uses thrusters to manoeuvre and is capable of travelling to a depth of 100 metres. (Rebecca Kelly/CBC)

After making just a few passes over the area, an unusual shape appeared on their sonar screen. A few more passes made it clear: they had found the elusive plane.

"The look on Doug's face was just priceless, as far as seeing that we discovered it," recalled Hanulik.

Doug Davidge's reaction after realizing he and his team have located the Bristol on Aug. 5, 2018. (Steven Hanulik)

Hanulik deployed the ROV and piloted it to capture underwater images of the wreckage from as many angles as possible.

Watch underwater footage of the plane that had been lost for nearly half a century

5 years ago
Duration 1:05
Steven Hanulik piloted the remotely operated underwater vehicle that captured these images in Yukon's Baker Lake earlier this August.

The nose section of the plane appeared to be crumpled. The port door was missing. Long creases extended the length of the fuselage. 

The black, white and orange paint on the aircraft's port side appears to be largely untouched, judging by images captured by the ROV. (Steven Hanulik)

Hanulik was so consumed by the details of the mission at that point that the magnitude of the discovery didn't register until he was back on land.

"It's something that doesn't really hit you until after you get back on shore and you start looking at the footage — that you are the first set of eyes to have looked at something in 49 years," Hanulik said.

This image of the Bristol Freighter was captured with the ROV. Sonar measured the approximate depth at 41 metres. (Steven Hanulik)

On to 'the next great adventure'

There are no immediate plans to recover the aircraft from the bottom of the lake. For the moment, Hanulik and his team are most interested in speaking with anyone who may have once piloted the aircraft, or who might know anything more about its history or ownership.

"What's our treasure at the end of it?" asked Hanulik in reflection. "This is just a labour of love from everybody concerned."

He and his crew donated their time, equipment and energy in pursuit of the "joy of the unknown," he said.

"More than anything, it shows that there is still some mystery left in the North, and it still shows that there are some things that are left to be discovered out there," he said.

And as long as there are, he says he'll keep searching.

"There's always things on the horizon, as far as rumours that are out there, lost treasure and things like that. So we're always on the lookout for the next great adventure."

With files from Rebecca Kelly.