Yukoner restores helicopter that crashed in 1952

A historian is restoring what he says is 'undoubtedly the oldest helicopter in the Yukon,' which crashed outside Old Crow.

Hiller 360 crashed outside Old Crow and sat on frozen tundra for 62 years

Sparks fly as historian Bob Cameron cuts a steel piece in his Whitehorse garage while rebuilding the Hiller 360's landing gear. 'In retirement I've been able to indulge in aviation history, the preservation of it and recording of it,' he says. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

A historian is restoring what he says is "undoubtedly the oldest helicopter in the Yukon," which crashed in 1952 outside Old Crow. 

Bob Cameron says the Hiller 360 helicopter is surprisingly well-preserved.

The original mustard-coloured paint hasn't worn off and you can still see handwritten lettering on the side. Some of the mechanical components turn without a squeak.

Cameron is restoring the helicopter in his Whitehorse garage. It will never fly again but is headed for the Yukon Transportation Museum. 

Hand-painted lettering can be read on the helicopter's side. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Pilots wrote 'OK' in rocks

Cameron says the Hiller 360 was one of a pair brought to Yukon by Toronto-based company Kenting Aviation in the early 1950s to do topographical surveys.

At the time, helicopters were a new technology, but Cameron says Kenting Aviation believed in them.

"As primitive as they may have been been, they bought into the idea early on."

In August 1952, the yellow Hiller crashed moments after takeoff. Company records state that the helicopter suffered a power loss, which might have been the result of fuel pump trouble, and touched down on a sloped ridge. 

The Hiller's inflatable rubber pontoons snagged on the ground and the whole thing flipped sideways, leaving its wooden rotors shattered.

An aerial photo from 1952 shows the pilots wrote "OK" in rocks, signalling they were fine. A company report says "nobody [was] even scratched."

However, the helicopter was called a "probable write-off," and was left where it was.

Co-ordinates of the crash were recorded in the 1952 company report. The site is marked here with a yellow tag. (Google)

Frozen in the landscape

For decades only a few people knew of the downed helicopter's location. 

One helicopter pilot found the wreck in 1963 and stopped to scratch his name on its side. Decades later, Cameron would see that inscription, track down its maker — Jim Davies — and call him. Cameron asked the pilot if he had taken a photo that day, and it turned out he had. The photo will be part of the exhibit at the transportation museum.

A helicopter pilot found the wreck in 1963 and stopped to scratch his name in the side. Decades later, Bob Cameron would read the name and give him a call to hear the story. (Submitted by Bob Cameron)

Cameron says he's known the helicopter was there since 1972.

He was a bush pilot based in Inuvik working on charters related to the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, and his friend, a helicopter pilot, stumbled upon it during a trip to the Bluefish River. 

When they inspected the wreck they found some parts were missing, likely used for salvage, he thinks.

"Somebody came along at one stage and took the tail boom. Interestingly, it was found [160 kilometres] away on the banks of the Porcupine River. Why? We don't know," he says.

For years Cameron didn't think any more about it, as it would have been prohibitively expensive to remove the wreckage. 

Yukon company helps out with airlift

In 2014, Cameron's former employer of 38 years, Trans North Helicopters, happened to be working in the region.

The company and their charter client agreed to donate time and fuel to helicopter the wreckage in a large net to Eagle Plains, Yukon.

Cameron received the Hiller at Eagle Plains and drove it back to Whitehorse on a flatbed truck.

He's now beginning to work on the restoration. 

"In retirement I've been able to pretty much indulge in aviation history, the preservation of it and recording of it," he says.

In April, thanks to a grant from the Yukon Foundation, Cameron travelled to Texas for donated Hiller parts and to prepare them for shipping back North. The Yukon Foundation is a non-profit organization with a mandate that includes promoting education and Yukon cultural heritage.

Frozen in time: 'After sitting out there for 62 years in Arctic blizzards ... you can see the amazing condition of the aircraft,' Cameron says. (Bob Cameron)

Headed for museum 

Cameron has already restored planes for the Yukon Transportation Museum

The Hiller 360 will go there when it's finished, but it won't be a complete restoration. 

"Because of its remarkable story of its preservation, after sitting out there for 62 years in Arctic blizzards ... you can see the amazing condition of the aircraft," he says.

"We're going to restore and preserve its condition after all those years of sitting on the tundra."

The Hiller 360 in Bob Cameron's garage where it's being restored for the Yukon Transportation Museum. (Philippe Morin/CBC)