FAIRVIEW, Alta. — The crucial ingredient was farmer ingenuity.
That’s what it took to move a broken, 20,000-pound former warplane with a 104-foot wingspan from remote Sitigi Lake near Inuvik, N.W.T., to a farm in Fairview, Alta.
The plane is the Canso PBY-5A, and six farmers plus numerous other volunteers have been working to get her airborne since 2008.
History, aviation interest, camaraderie and education have all come into play for the original six farmers involved: Don Wieben, Doug Roy, Brian Wilson, Joe Gans, Norbert Luken and Henry Dechant.
Earlier this month, the crew started up both engines on the Canso, which now sits at Fairview Airport, near the clubhouse of the Fairview Aircraft Restoration Society.
It was a major step in getting the plane into the sky again, possibly by next spring or summer. Then it will go on tour to air shows and small communities where the public and especially school groups can have a good look at history.
“It’s all local guys that do most of the physical work on it,” Wieben said as he held a shiny wrench and cradled one of the airplane’s parts.
“They’re good. It’s amazing how much of that (farm experience) carries over. When you’re working on a combine and fixing the tin work on it and so on, a lot of it is very similar,” he said.
“You have to use smaller hammers, that’s the big thing,” he added, drawing laughs from Roy and Wilson. “And smaller wrenches, and no crescent wrenches, and no big water pump pliers.”
The Canso has seen its fair share of hammers, and then some. The 1943 “flying boat,” once said to be a cross between an alligator and an albatross, began life as a patrol bomber. It flew out of Iceland with the 162 Squadron to spot and bomb German submarines.
After the war, the plane was sold and used commercially to fly fish from northern Canadian communities to the factory. Later, the Royal Canadian Air Force used it to patrol the mid-Canadian line, similar to the DEW line, in Canada’s north.
After that, it was converted to a water bomber, flying out of Newfoundland and Labrador and using its ability to load water on the fly.
Joe McBryan, owner of Buffalo Air, then added the Canso to his fleet of similar planes for use on a fire fighting contract out of Yellowknife, N.W.T. Something went wrong one day in 2001, and the plane went down in remote Sitigi Lake in about 90 feet of water.
Dragged out for salvage, the Canso sat on the snowy shore for the next seven years.
That’s when Wieben happened to meet “Buffalo Joe,” renowned via the television show Ice Pilots, who was selling some of his planes. They talked about the history of the Canadian-made Cansos.
“Joe said, ‘if you want one so bad, I know where one is. You can go get it,’ ” said Roy. “A bit of a challenge, but he took him up on it. So Don mustered up a bunch of us guys around here, the six farmers from Fairview. We went up and salvaged it.”
They dragged the plane across the lake and over the tundra to Inuvik, floated it 1,500 kilometres by barge to Hay River and then detached the wing and put it on two separate trucks for the trip to Fairview.
Yes, farmer ingenuity was key, said Roy. “I think that was the reason we succeeded where others couldn’t put it all together,” he said.
“We had some connections up there. We knew some people that were associated with the (Inuit) council, and I knew the head of the tribal council from some other business experiences, and that helped a lot, to get approved to go and do it.”
The next problem: no engines. The originals had been salvaged in 2001. Once again, a chance en-counter provided a solution.
Wieben and Gans were vacationing in Newfoundland and Labrador when they saw a Canso on display in St. Anthony. It had engines it wasn’t using. A deal was done.
What followed were years of regular work bees and a wider community interest in the restoration.
“It was a challenge at first, but now it’s become something bigger than that,” said Roy. “It’s to preserve it, to honor the people that flew it during the war and its afterlife as a water bomber, just to preserve that.”
Wieben shares the same vision.
“It’s been so much fun along the way. Even if we never did get it flying, it’s been such a positive experience, I think, for all of us, really. All the volunteers and the people we’ve met through it.
“The real strength has been the community, and the guys that are involved on it that have a farm background just know how to fix things. That’s paid off, spades over.”
Among the people encountered during the project, Wieben recalls meeting wartime Canso pilot Jim McRae of Yarmouth, N.S. He re-counted a tale of sinking a submarine, taking enemy fire and ditching the plane in the Atlantic.
It was a good landing but the plane was sinking, and the two life rafts overinflated and partially burst.
The nine crew members had to take turns in the raft and in the water. Three of them had died from exposure by the time a rescue ship arrived.
“He told us that very calmly, with no bitterness or anything like that. It was matter of fact. It’s so touching. It gives you such a close touch with history. Meeting him was a real thrill.”
Wieben, who is a pilot, farmer and licensed aircraft mechanic, is able to sign off on some of the work, but other professionals also volunteer their time to periodically inspect the plane as work progresses.
The crew is working toward an eventual flight of the Canso, but the journey has become as important as the destination.
Phase one was getting the plane to Fairview. Phase two is repair and restoration.
“Phase 3 will be for the Fairview Aircraft Restoration Society to operate it as a heritage airplane,” Wieben said.
“The success of that will be, if 30 years from now it’s still flying … taking in air shows and showing it to communities. For that, its’ going to take younger pilots. Most of us are to the stage where, 30 years from now, we may or may not be able to fly a Canso.”
Farmer ingenuity can only go so far — but that is pretty far indeed.