Second World War plane with colourful past takes flight in northern Alberta

A Canadian-made Canso airplane has taken to the skies again after a decade-long restoration mission led by a group of Fairview, Alta.-area farmers.

Veteran who flew Canso patrol bomber during war travelled to Fairview to witness historic flight

The restored Canso airplane on the tarmac at the Fairview, Alta. airport. (Nola Keeler/CBC)

It hunted enemy planes in the Second World War and fought forest fires in the Canadian north before sitting for years, broken and deserted on the shores of a frozen lake. 

Now, a Canadian-made Canso PBY-5A airplane has taken to the skies again after a decade-long restoration mission led by a group of Fairview, Alta.-area farmers.

It was a Father's Day to remember for six Second World War veterans who travelled to the sleepy Alberta town to witness the historic moment.

Honorary guests Hal Burns, James McRae, Peter Austin Smith, Herb Shannon, Robert Smith and Bruce Olson watched from the edge of the tarmac as the red and green patrol bomber roared to life.
The Second World War Canso PBY-5A plane took to the skies in Fairview, Alta. after a decade-long restoration. 1:34

The amphibious Canadian-built plane was manufactured in Quebec in 1943.

Only 620 of the planes were built in Canada.

Until Sunday, only 12 of them were airworthy.

This Canso is lucky number 13.

Cheers and applause for first flight

When she took off from the tiny Fairview airport at 11 a.m. Sunday, an estimated 1,000 people were on hand to cheer her to the skies.

James McRae, 99, who flew the Canso during the war, travelled from Nova Scotia for the big event.

He survived eight hours in a life raft in the Atlantic Ocean after another Canso he was in was shot down by an enemy submarine.

Watching the machine roar back to life was a rush for the veteran pilot. 

"It was quite a thrill, really,"  McRae said. "It looked absolutely natural — nice and smooth."
Veteran James McCrae who flew the Canso patrol bomber during the war travelled to Fairview to witness the historic flight. (CBC)

Hal Burns, 94, said watching the plane took him back to the war when he was a Canso pilot patrolling for enemy submarines in the North Atlantic.

"I would have been doing what they're doing," Burns said. "I was watching every manoeuvre they made."

After its wartime service, the plane was repurposed as a water bomber and fought fires in the Northwest Territories.

It was damaged and went down in the waters of Sitidgi Lake near Inuvik, N.W.T. in 2001. 

It would remain forgotten on the shores of the icy lake for seven years, until a group of six Fairview-area farmers rescued it from the frozen tundra and started the arduous task of restoring the aircraft.

The group of six travelled north to collect the plane in 2008.

It was no easy task.

First, the plane had to be hauled across the frozen surface of Sitidgi Lake to the Dempster Highway using a tractor and a snowcat machine. 

The plane was transported to the Mackenzie River, where it was loaded onto a barge and shipped to Hay River, N.W.T.

From there, the plane was put on a trailer, its wings removed, and driven to Fairview. A group of dedicated volunteers has been rebuilding the 74-year-old aircraft ever since. 

​Volunteers took on a big job

"We lost track of how many volunteer hours a long time ago," said Doug Roy, president of the Fairview Aircraft Restoration Society.

Roy estimated thousands of hours have been spent over the past eight years restoring the Canso to her former glory.

It's a project that's captured the imagination and support of many, including the Newfoundland towns of St. Anthony and Stephenville, which donated two engines to the group.

St. Anthony mayor Roger Penney even travelled to Fairview to see the plane in action.
Organizers estimate 1,000 people showed up at the Fairview airport to see the Canso take off. (Nola Keeler/CBC)

Bill Brady of Victoria, B.C., was the pilot for Sunday's inaugural flight.

He's a retired airline and water-bomber captain who has completed more than 5,000 water bomber runs on Canso planes.

"It flies beautifully, nice and straight," he said of the plane he calls a "dinosaur" compared to modern airplanes.

"It flew just like a Canso. Very heavy on the controls," he said. "You use an awful lot of rudder which you don't [use] on most airplanes."

Canso pilots love the plane

It's a plane that seems to generate a lot of loyalty from people who fly it.

"Any pilots who flew Cansos ... they seem to have taken quite an attachment to them," said McRae. "That's mainly the reason I came all the way from Nova Scotia."

Five of the six Canso veterans who were in Fairview for the inaugural flight. Left to right Peter Austin Smith, Robert Smith, Hal Burns, James McRae, and Herb Chanin. (Nola Keeler/CBC)

It's a sentiment echoed by the volunteers who have put their hearts, souls and grease-stained hands into restoring the plane.

"I think the airplane has won our hearts as well, over the years, and I think it did even before we went and got it," said Don Wieben, one of the original Fairview six farmers. "There was just something about it that just didn't deserve to stay there. She deserved to fly again."

The restoration group plans to turn the Canso into a flying museum, showcasing the plane's 75-year history of defending Canadians at home and abroad.

Wherever it goes, the group is confident Canadians will enjoy seeing it.

"It's a real thrill to see it fly,"  said Don Wieben. "It's a beautiful airplane."



About the Author

Nola Keeler is an award-winning journalist who has worked with CBC in Whitehorse, Yukon and Edmonton since 2000. She has worked as a host, reporter, news reader and producer for CBC. Send story ideas to nola.keeler@cbc.ca.