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Save the Canso

By Jack Dueck, Editor

This story starts in 1943 with the rollout of an amphibious Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Canso, number 11094, at the Canadian factory in Cartierville, PQ. For several years, the Cansos flew out of Iceland on anti-submarine patrol. Cansos were noted for their rugged construction, slow speed, and long flight endurance qualities.


After the war, this flying boat was sold into commercial use and registered as C-FNJEbefore its eventual conversion into a water bomber. Some years later, Buffalo Airways acquired it and put it into service fighting forest fires throughout the Canadian north. In 2001, with the factorybased out of Inuvik, Northwest Territories, it was picking up water in Sitidgi Lake, about 250 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, when it began porpoising. Subsequently it sank in about 100feet of water.

Some damage occurred to the aircraft, but Buffalo’s crew was able to float it up and pull it out of the water and onto the shore of the lake. Buffalo decided to salvage the engines and props, and the rest of this aircraft was left on the shoreline.


Now entering this story are six farmers from Fairview, Alberta. (Fairview is located about 560 kilometers northwest of Edmonton.) One of the six, Don Wieben, noticed that Buffalo Airways was selling its fleet of Cansos to make room for more efficient and larger aircraft. Don spoke to Buffalo’s Joe McBryan suggesting that at least one Canso should be kept as an historic Canadian artifact. Joe responded that number 11094, C-FNJE, was sitting on the shore of Sitidgi Lake, and that it was available.

Don’s son Brian found a photograph of the aircraft. Investigating further, Don and some of his neighbors checked out Google Earth on the Internet and found a photo of the lake. Sure enough, there on the shore sat the Canso. In a very short time, Joe Gans, Henry Dechant, Doug Roy, and Brian Wilson had joined Don in a quest to rescue and restore this Canso to flying shape. When a few 60-year-old farmers in northern Alberta get going on a project, something is sure to happen.

Don Wieben had experience in aircraft restoration, as he and his wife had restored a Beech 18. and the couple still had four skis on hand. The farmers thought that if they would attach two skis back-to-back, they would be able to support the Canso across the tundra. And so one day, they set out to drive some 2,800 kilometers north to pick up the wreck. They were short one driver, so Norbert Luken, another neighboring farmer, cancelled a scheduled eye surgery for the next day and offered to come along for the adventure.


Because it was winter with temperatures around -30°C, they hoped they would be able to move the aircraft across the tundra with very little environmental impact. The farmers received support and permission from the Gwitchin Tribal Council with the proviso that they would keep on top of the snow to protect the tundra. Enlisting the help of longtime guide Albert Frost and his Ski-Doo, they set out across Sitidgi Lake with a borrowed Yanmar tracked vehicle and three Ski-Doos.

With the Canso jacked onto the modified Beech 18 skis and hooked to the Yanmar, they pulled it across the lake and overland to the Dempster Highway. On reaching the Dempster, the skis were removed, and with the help of the highway patrol, C-FNJE was towed to Inuvik, skirted the town, down to the ice road on the MackenzieRiver and up the bank to the Northern Transportation Company yard. (The Canso has a wing span of 104 feet, but a section of one wing had been removed, allowing the 80-foot wide load to be moved down the highway.) They had received an offer from Northern Transportation Company Ltd., which runs barges up and down the Mackenzie during the summer, to barge it down the Mackenzie to Hay River, Alberta. The Canso was loaded onto a barge the following October, and on one of the last barging trips of the summer, was barged to Hay River, a distance of approximately 1,600 kilometers. The trip took two weeks.


At Hay River, the wings were removed and loaded onto a flat deck truck operated by Don’s son Greg. The fuselage was loaded onto a special truck and trailer provided by CapstonTrucking in Grande Prairie. Eventually the aircraft arrived in Fairview, Alberta. Here the one-piece wing was mounted on jigged stands in one of Brian Wilson’s large farm shops, the fuselage in another larger shop, and the six farmers-come-aircraft-restorers are doing their thing.


Crawling onto the wing, I was shown the damage to the fuel tanks by the water pressure. These still need to be repaired; the repair will require a small person to work in a confined space. The hull has already had a substantial amount of work completed, and the cockpit area restoration is being addressed. All work is being done under the watchful eye of a certified Aircraft Maintenance Engineer.The aircraft is in remarkable condition, and little if any corrosion is apparent.

Retired RCAF First Lieutenant JamesMacRae, living in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, flew this particular Canso in anti-submarine patrol out of Reykjavik, Iceland. In an interview with CBC/Radio-Canada, James recalled flying it on three separate missions, the last, escorting a convoy across the Northern Atlantic for about 14 hours. He remembers the Canso’s controls were heavy, but he was also quite attached to the aircraft.

Don and his friends have a specific goal in mind; their mission is to restore the Canso and see it fly again across Canada’s northern arctic as a symbol of Canadian Arctic Sovereignty. F/L MacRae would like to be a part of that epic flight.

Visit www.SaveTheCanso.com for updateson the restoration project.

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