Saving the Canso

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St. Anthony and Stephenville donate engines and propellers

What started out as six farmers from Fairview, Alberta, looking to save a piece of aviation history, has snowballed into a national movement to get a downed Canso PBY 5A back in the air.

Even though the plane already had a Newfoundland connection, St. Anthony and Stephenville is playing a big part in getting it back into flying shape.

The engines and propellers of a display Canso in St. Anthony, once owned by Stephenville, are being donated to the Fairview Aircraft Restoration Society to help see the project completed.


The history

The Canso was designed as a flying boat with wheels. It was an American design that was later manufactured in Canada during war times.

The plane being restored was built for the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943. It was flying out of Nova Scotia, and a short time later was tasked to convoy patrols and submarine patrols in Iceland.

Restoration Society vice-president Don Wieben said after the war the plane was converted to a freighter, which served on Artic runs.

In the 1960s, the plane was put up as crown assets and purchased to conduct northern fly jobs.

“Around 1970 the Newfoundland and Labrador purchased it, and it was converted to a water bomber,” he said. “It served with the Newfoundland and Labrador air service until 1997. The plane still has the province’s distinct green and orange paint scheme.”

The PBY 5A was sold off and eventually came into the hands of Buffalo Airways Joe McBryan – better known as “Buffalo” Joe on the reality television series Ice Pilots NWT, which airs on the History Channel.

Wieben said McBryan continued operating the plane as a water bomber.

In 2001, the plane was picking up water in Sitidgi Lake, NWT, when it sunk 250 miles north of the Article circle.

“It was much like an outboard boat going down a lake and when there’s too much weight in the nose and it starts bobbing, well the Canso has a tendency to do that,” Wieben said. “If you’re careful it can be avoided. But if the airplane gets away from the pilot, the nose can dig into the water violently. It ruptures the nose wheel doors and causes water to come in.”

Wieben said Buffalo Airways raised the sunken plane and brought it to the shoreline.

“But it was too big to lift out with any standard helicopter, so what they decided to do was salvage the engines, propellers, instruments and radios; but left the body on the shore,” he said.


Getting the plane

In 2007 Wieben was chatting with McBryan when he noticed McBryan had three Cansos up for sale.

“I remarked he should save one of the planes as a heritage plane because of their significant role in Canadian aviation history,” Wieben said. “(McByran) said there’s one in Sitidgi Lake if I wanted one.”

After a price for the downed plane was negotiated, Wieben started talking about recovering the plane with his friends.

“Eventually we wound up with six famers from Fairview heading up to get it.”

But getting there took some time.

Wieben said a set of skis had to be made so the plane could be towed out. The Inuvik aboriginals had to be consulted for approval, there were chats with the Department of Environment to be had; even the size of vehicles to be used in process was looked into.

“Arrangements were made with an aboriginal guide – Albert Frost – to help us locate the airplane and map out a route that was best.”

By April 2008, everything was ready to get the plane 45 miles to the nearest road.

The first look on the grown showed some four feet of snow surrounding a massive plane.

“It was a little daunting at first, but nobody got around to telling us we couldn’t do it and we had a plan mapped out that could work,” said Wieben.

The Canso crew spent four days digging out and placing the tow skis on the plane.

It was attached to a tracked machine to get the plane moving.

“We came across the ice about 20 kilometres, which was slow going because we could only go three kilometres per hour,” he said. “Then it took us two more days to get through the tundra. We had to trim a few trees but because the Canso has very high winds it was able to go over most of the trees.”


Acts of kindness

During the move across the tundra there were power problems, and it was agreed to rent a piece of machinery from a local contractor.

“At the end of the day the contractor said ‘don’t worry about it’ and that was probably a $10,000 bill,” said Doug Roy, the Society’s president.

When the crew got the plane to the road, a representative from the Northern Transportation Company, which barges freight into Artic communities, offered to ship the plane to Hay River, Alberta – approximately 1,500 kilometres.

“We were about 15 miles by road to where the barge lands,” he said.

The road measurements provided a two-foot gap between the wingspan and light poles; Wieben said it was decided to give it a shot.

“The highways department shut down the highway for us to do that, until we could get on the Mackenzie River and tow it down to the barge yard,” he said.

The Northern Transportation Company stored the plane for six months before shipping the plane down.

To get the plane from Hay River to Fairview, the crew had to move it down the highway 740 kilometres.

“We needed a special double drop trailer for hauling heavy equipment and there’s an oil patch company that specializes in that equipment. We explained the whole thing and they donated a truck, driver and fuel to move the airplane down for us,” he said.

“We just ran into so many people willing to help out where they could, it was really amazing to see complete strangers willing to give us a hand.”


Getting off the ground

Back in Fairview, the group started working towards restoring the plane.

The frame was in nice shape, but there was structural damage that needed to be fixed.

Wieben said a structural repair mechanic was brought in to get the Canso back up to standard.

“The first step was to get the structural work done because you can’t buy parts for it, so virtually the structural repair parts had to be hand made,” he said. “That work is done and we’ve got the certification work done.

Over the last six months, the biggest effort went into hydraulics, control cables and fabric repairs.

But the big item needed was the engines and propellers.

Wieben said the group had spent the last three years looking for an engine for the plane.

“A completely new, overhauled, engine is very expensive, and we couldn’t afford to go that route. We did look at used engines, and they are available, but it’s hard to know the history.”

Wieben said the longer the engines sit, the move susceptible they become to corrosion.

Stepping away from the project for some vacation time, Wieben made the trip to Newfoundland last summer.

He got to talking with a Newfoundland and Labrador airman and learned of the St. Anthony Canso.

Wieben even got in contact with Roger Penney, who flew the plane into St. Anthony – so it could be displayed.


Approaching St. Anthony

Wieben said he was able to discover that the display plane has engines with relatively low flying time and was overhauled not long before being taken out of service.

“When I checked with Roger, we found out the plan was deregistered with Transport Canada and there was no intention of flying it again.”

So the possibility of swapping St. Anthony’s engines with time expired engines was discussed and a pitch was made to the town in late 2012.


St. Anthony gets on board

When the request came through, along with an accompanying package that outlined the group’s efforts, St. Anthony mayor Ernest Simms said council became quite intrigued.

Discussions were held around the table about how St. Anthony could help out.

“We didn’t pay anything for it and we thought it would be nice to be a part of this project,” Simms said.

But the town couldn’t give the go ahead right away. The Town of Stephenville had donated the plane and approval was needed from both communities.

“There was an agreement between the two towns, that if engine and propellers were sold the funds would be shared equally,” Simms said. “Even though this was a donation, permission was still needed.”

The donation comes with conditions though. If the Restoration Society decides to get rid of the engines and propellers the town has to be informed and a portion of the funds turned over to both towns.

The aircraft would also contain “The Spirit of St. Antony” and “The Spirit of Stephenville.”

Also, if there’s an Atlantic Canada itinerary, both towns requested a stop over.

Simms said there was some thought about selling the engines, but said it’s a good will gesture that goes a long way.

“We think it’s a great way to help the Society and it’s also beneficial to St. Anthony in promotion. It will do more good than any monetary figure that could have been placed on it,” he said.

“It’s a great story of everybody trying to help everybody. These Alberta farmers committed so much time and energy to getting this aircraft repaired and to see them stuck is something we didn’t want to see.”

The Canso crew was ecstatic when the news came down.

“We’ve all done a jig and a dance over the news. It’s a huge step forward for us, and we are thankful to the communities of Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Wieben.

“The contribution the two communities has really been the step for us to wind up getting a good flying plane to show the rest of Canada.”


Final piece of the puzzle

Wieben said not everything has been completed, but it’s the final piece with regards to big pieces. But the little things like getting the paper work of having it licensed through Transport Canada can be very daunting.

“This makes the project defiantly doable now, and we just need to stick with it and get all the nitty-gritty things done to get it in the air.”


Getting the engines

Wieben said the plan now is to have the replacement engines ready to go.

“We are putting together the two engines and propellers with everything needed to go back on St. Anthony’s Canso and we’ll paint everything up to match what is being taken out,” he said. “They’ll look exactly the same on the outside.”

A process, he said, that will take approximately three weeks.

The propellers are even being prepared.

From there everything will be loaded onto a trailer, and a cross-country trip will get underway.

“We are hoping to leave around the May 10, and spend a few days swapping the engines,” he said.


Historic plan

The Canso crew has an overall vision of turning the plane into a flying museum. They are already taking kids through the plane so they can get a better sense of its history.

Both St. Anthony and Stephenville ask that the two communities be a part of the travels.

“We want to share the plane with the rest of Canada and we would love to do something like that,” said Roy.

There’s also a epic journey being considered – which could see the crew flying to the North Pole to plant a Canadian flag on the ocean floor.

“The Russians made a big hullabaloo a few years back when they planted their flag, so we feel if we did that with a plane that was built in Canada, served in the World War 2 and up in the Artic, (it would certainly be a thrill).”


To learn more about the project, visit

Organizations: Fairview Aircraft Restoration Society, Canadian Air Force, Iceland.Restoration Society Northern Transportation Company Department of Environment Transport Canada

Geographic location: St. Anthony, Stephenville, Newfoundland and Labrador Fairview Atlantic Canada Alberta Artic Sitidgi Lake Nova Scotia Hay River Mackenzie River North Pole

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Recent comments

  • Mark Simms
    April 09, 2013 - 11:03

    I remember the day that the Canso sunk in Sitigi Lake. I worked as a Fishery officer in inuvik for 5 years and we were concerned about fuel and oil leaks and I was on site several times while it was being refloated and winched ashore. I remember the day the tail broke the surface and the first thing I saw was the NL flag! To top it off, I had a close look at the donor plane in St. Anthony while I was home for Christmas this year. Canada is a very big country, but sometimes the coincidences and connections are amazing!