Alberta team's WWII Halifax bomber rescue gets underway

A team of aviation enthusiasts from Alberta has finally made its way to Sweden to recover a Second World War Halifax bomber that has been sitting at the bottom of the Baltic Sea for 76 years. 

Recovering 'the greatest airplane in all 110 years of flight in Canada' costs $120K

The Halifax Bomber, a four-engine heavy bomber used during the Second World War. (Submitted by Karl Kjarsgaard)

A team of aviation enthusiasts from Alberta has finally made its way to Sweden to recover a wartime Halifax bomber that has been sitting at the bottom of the Baltic Sea for 76 years. 

Work to bring what's left of the Halifax bomber back to southern Alberta got underway this week — after two years of fundraising and planning led by the Bomber Command Museum of Canada. 

Members of the museum, along with Swedish colleagues and a team called Halifax 57 Rescue are digging up pieces of the aircraft, which are scattered off the south coast of Sweden.

"It's settled into the sand so we've got a giant vacuum cleaner that uses water and it will suck up the sand and deposit it somewhere else and we'll dig out the airplane," said Karl Kjarsgaard, director of the Nanton Bomber Command Museum.

It's part of a years-long, costly plan to rebuild the iconic aircraft in the museum in Nanton, Alta., located about 90 kilometres south of Calgary. It originally started in 2015 and has been slow to proceed due to delays. 

The museum has been collecting key pieces of different Halifax wrecks from around the world as part of its Halifax Recovery Project.

Lifting the aircraft 

Kjarsgaard said they had to convince the Swedish government to give them the salvage rights to the Second World War airplane and organize a dive and recovery crew, as well as a sonar vessel to make detailed maps of the seabed and the wreck site. 

Three thousand photos were taken of the seabed to piece together the site ahead of the recovery. 

Kjarsgaard said the team is going to first remove the engines, the smallest parts, and work toward lifting the heavy centre section of the aircraft — with help from a 15-metre tugboat. 

Karl Kjarsgaard says a restored Halifax Bomber is a must for Nanton’s Bomber Command Museum of Canada. It’s the Second World War bomber that Canadian airmen flew in the most — even more than the Lancaster bomber, which the museum already has on display. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

The pieces will be taken to a warehouse in Sweden where they'll be identified and then shipped off to Ottawa to a rebuild shop. 

It's estimated it will take six to seven years to build the aircraft, which is 23-metres-long with a 31-metre wingspan, once all its pieces are reunited.

The entire process will cost $120,000, which is almost double what Kjarsgaard's team has raised so far. 

Despite the hefty price tag, the director of the museum said the aircraft's history is well worth preserving. 

Priceless history

The Royal Canadian Air Force bomber lost two engines and suffered extensive damage to its flight controls during a raid on Hamburg, Germany, on Aug. 3, 1943.

Its crew of seven were forced to bail out, leaving the plane to plunge into the Baltic Sea.

The actual crew of HR871 pictured with the plane that crashed into the sea off the coast of Sweden in 1943. All seven bailed out safely. (Submitted by Karl Kjarsgaard)

Kjarsgaard said there's a misconception among Canadians that bomber crews exclusively flew Lancasters to victory. 

"Canadians flew 70 per cent of their combat in the Halifax," he said. 

The names of 10,000 Canadians who died in bombers during the war are inscribed on a memorial wall at the museum. 

"Most of those lads were killed in Halifaxes, fighting for Canada's freedom," he said. 

"You need a Lancaster in your museum but you know what you need sitting beside it? It's almost more important [to have] a Halifax," he said.

That's why the museum's specialty team, the Halifax 57, is searching on mountain tops, under the ocean and in swamps to find the bombers, or what Kjarsgaard calls "the greatest airplane in all 110 years of flight in Canada." 

Kjarsgaard formed the rescue group back in 1994 as a charitable organization focused on the Halifax project, putting feelers out around the world searching for Halifax wrecks and parts. 

The Swedish bomber is the group's third big find.

"We're excited about it but we know we have a tedious job ahead of us," he said.  

With files from Dan McGarvey