WWII veteran returns to Canso cockpit, 69 years later

A 91-year-old former RCAF captain is back in the cockpit of the very same plane he flew in 1945, thanks to the incredible efforts of a group of farmers from Fairview, Alta.

Hal Burns flew Cansos over the North Atlantic looking for enemy submarines during WWII

A 92-year-old former Royal Canadian Air Force captain is back in the cockpit of the very same plane he flew in 1945, thanks to the incredible efforts of a group of Fairview, Alta. farmers.

Hal Burns last took to the skies in the cockpit of a Canadian-made Canso plane 69 years ago while stationed in Iceland as part of Squadron 162.

Burns left his family home in Didsbury, Alta. when he was just 19 to join the air force. He learned to fly the Canso in Newfoundland and British Columbia.

The amphibious aircraft was one of only 200 ever built in Quebec.

“I was so interested in doing it and I loved doing it. I sort of felt as if I was meant to fly a plane,” remembered Burns.

His mission: to protect the shipping lanes between England and North America. Burns and his crew spent up to 14 hours a day patrolling the North Atlantic Ocean for enemy submarines.

“I think I know every white cap in the North Atlantic,” he said.

However, he never did see any submarines.

Hal Burns describes the experience of flying a Canso during WWII

After the war ended, Canso planes like the one Burns flew became a rare commodity.

However, tucked away in a hangar on a farm near Fairview,  north of Edmonton, one converted Canso remained.

A Canso recovered

After the war, Burns returned to Edmonton where he earned his engineering degree and raised a family.

Meanwhile, the Canso he once flew was converted into a water bomber and put to work in the Northwest Territories.

However, after sustaining damage while on the job in 2001, the plane went down in the waters of Sitidgi Lake near Inuvik, N.W.T.

Buffalo Airways, the plane’s owner, pulled the Canso out of the lake but only as far as the shore where it would sit for the next seven years.

But what could have been the end of the story for the plane was merely a new beginning after a group of farmers and airplane enthusiasts from Fairview heard about the abandoned plane.

Together, the group of six raised enough money to travel north and collect the plane an amazing story unto itself.

First, the plane had to be hauled across the frozen surface of Sitidgi Lake to the Dempster Highway. The original equipment a donated YANMAR tractor proved insufficient and had to be discarded in favour of a higher-horse-powered Snowcat.

While preparing the plane for the trip, a group of the farmers camped out in -25 C weather in a canvas tent they dubbed “the wilderness workshop.”

From the Dempster Highway, the group got the plane to the Mackenzie River, where the Canso was loaded onto a barge and shipped to Hay River, N.W.T. From there, the Canso was put on a trailer, its wings removed, and driven to Fairview.

Doug Roy, a member of team behind the restoration, said it was an honour to have an original Canso pilot back in the cockpit. (CBC)

In total, the move covered more than 3,000 kilometres.

Once in Alberta, the real work began, as the entire plane was painstakingly repaired and rebuilt, including two engines donated by a group of enthusiasts in Newfoundland. Some members of the restoration group drove all the way to Newfoundland to pick up the engines and bring them back to Fairview.

“It's been a long time, lots of hours, lots of good volunteer hours, but it's been worth it," said Doug Roy, one of the team who has been working on the plane since the beginning. 

Father’s Day trip to remember

Burns’ family first learned about the restoration project when he read a story about the plane’s recovery in the newspaper. He has had a standing invitation since 2008 to visit the plane.

But it wasn't until this spring that Burns’ daughter, Alison Poole, finally made the trip a reality.

Burns' daughter Alison Poole drove her father to Fairview, Alta. as a Father's Day present. (CBC)

“We were having Sunday dinner as we do every Sunday and I just said, ‘Dad, how would you like to go up for Father’s Day to Fairview and see the plane?’”

The entire family piled into their car to make the six-hour drive north, arriving just in time for a pancake breakfast where Burns was given a hero’s welcome at the tiny Fairview airport. One man even asked Burns for his autograph.

But Burns wasn’t the only one happy to see plane and pilot reunited.

Asked about how important it was to meet one of the original pilots of the plane he’s been working on for nearly a decade, Roy spoke with obvious pleasure.

“Oh, it’s wonderful. It just sort of solidifies it all. We’ve had lots of excitement, lots of interest but to know that somebody who actually flew this aircraft is here with us … you can’t describe how important it is.”

“It’s just makes it so rewarding. You realize you’re sort of making his dream come true, or come back to life again,” he added.

After Burns was introduced to the team behind the restoration, the hangar doors were opened to reveal the Canso, bringing Burns face to face with his old friend.

‘My God that plane is big’

At first, Burns seemed a little overwhelmed.

“First of all, I was amazed at the size of it. That was the thing that really sort of hit me because I never paid attention to that before … you just go along with it and flew the thing,” Burns said of his reunion.

Climbing the stairs up to the Canso’s door, the former pilot got a look at the controls that were once routine.

“Did I really do all that?” he asked in wonder.

Hal Burns, 91, was given a hero's welcome when he arrived at the tiny Fairview airport where the Canso is being restored. (CBC)

Although larger than he remembered, Burns wasted no time climbing into the cockpit where the memories came flooding back.

“I would feel quite at home, sitting there, flying this thing,” Burns recalled.

Burns immediately started going through the pre-flight check that once was routine for him.

“Throttle's full fine and now we get cleared for take off and away we go,” he announced as his daughter took pictures.

“I was just so proud of my dad, sitting in a cockpit of a plane that he sat in 69 years ago, telling everyone as if it was happening right then and there what to do if they saw a submarine,” she said.

And there was plenty of admiration to go around. Asked what he thought of the restoration team’s efforts, Burns was effusive in his praise.

“I think that’s absolutely wonderful. I have all the admiration in the world for them, for taking the trouble to do this. This is sort of a one in a million effort. There’s very few of these Cansos left in any shape or form.”

Asked whether he had any tips for the team of die-hard advocates who have worked so hard to get the plane to its current condition, Burns was brief: “Don't stop now I want to see it airborne!”

However, the plane is not going to be in the air for another year. The group plans to take off from one of the nearby fields to make the first flight to the nearby Fairview airport. Once in the air, the plan is to tour it around to give students a glimpse of the past.

Burns said he hopes the group won’t mind bringing the Canso down to Edmonton to pick him up.

“I would love to go for a ride,” he said, laughing.