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Crashing into Cobourg For Christmas

author: Ron Rupke

PAge HEader FEAT 2 crash 2

“Buffeted across Lake Ontario by the worst storm in the pilot’s memory, its radio mast shattered, its wings sheathed in ice, fuel dangerously low and one engine disabled, a fully loaded American airliner crash landed this morning in the knee deep snow of a farmer’s field half a mile west of here.”
                                           Local newspaper report, December 21, 1951

Captain Bruce Smelser knew his plane was in trouble in the early morning light.

The airliner left Chicago’s Midway airport headed for Newark, New Jersey just before four in the morning. East of Toledo the crew encountered heavy snow, and lost radio contact for more than an hour. The fuel gauge for the port side engine had dipped into the red zone – the C-46 passenger plane was minutes away from losing power on its left engine. Glancing at the starboard gauge that was also edging into the red zone, Smelser decided to begin a forced descent from their 9,000-foot cruising altitude. The lumbering plane broke through the heavy cloud cover at about 3,000 feet. “The Atlantic already?” asked his co-pilot Ed O’Leary when he saw the vast body of water below the clouds.

Smelser worked the radio, trying to establish ground contact. The left engine started to run roughly and surge – it was out of fuel! Smelser feathered the portside propellers, and eased the airliner into an 80 degree turn to the north. At 7:26 a.m., a voice from the Rochester airport filled the cockpit. Smelser responded, “N-59489 over water, 2,500 feet, one engine out, low on fuel, position unknown, heading 80 degrees.”

Twelve minutes later Smelser radioed Rochester again, “Sighted small town, both engines out, landing wheels-up.”

Just as the second engine sputtered and died, stewardess Sandy Daine entered the pilot’s cabin carrying a cup of coffee. “I thought you could use this right about now.” Smiling grimly, Smelser signalled to place the cup on the control console, and told Ms. Daine to prepare the passengers for a wheels-up landing. He heard her voice in the cabin behind him, advising passengers to “fasten your seat belts and pray!”

Just west of Cobourg the captain spotted an open field covered with a heavy blanket of snow. He gradually lowered the plane until its belly skimmed the fence line that separated Charlie Wilson’s farm from his neighbour’s. And then it touched down, sliding along the level field like a 76-foot-long toboggan, and came to rest within a few hundred feet of contact.

A “wheels-up” landing qualifies as a plane crash – yet Smelser managed to glide the silent airliner to earth so smoothly that some passengers did not even realize they had touched down until Sandy Daine opened the door to survey the landscape. She spotted the Wilson farmhouse then turned and told the passengers that they would have to drop down into the drifted snow and walk across the windswept field to reach shelter. One 75-year-old passenger, who was going to Virginia to spend Christmas with her son, had to be persuaded to leave the plane. “I paid my $102.20 for this trip,” she told a newspaper reporter later, “and I wasn’t going to end it somewhere in someone’s back field.”

As the crew and passengers prepared for their trek across the snowy field, the Wilson family was busy with their morning chores. Working with his hired man Harold Drinkwater, Charles Wilson had already milked the cows, loaded the large cans on the back of his 1951 red Studebaker pickup, bucked the snowdrifts in the lane and headed to the Cobourg City Dairy. Ruby Wilson was busy preparing breakfast for her husband’s return and her still-sleeping teenage sons, when Harold Drinkwater burst through the kitchen door and announced that “a big plane landed in the field south of the barn, and about 100 people are walking toward the house”. Ruby Wilson threw open the door to the crackling cold to confirm Harold’s story and then she woke her sons Bob and Larry.

Larry Wilson, 15 at the time, remembers that his bedroom window was too frosted to see out that morning. He dressed quickly, rushed out the back door, and opened the barnyard gate for the line of cold and bewildered travellers; he vividly remembers a woman walking through the snow in high-heeled strap shoes. Larry picked her up in his arms and carried her to the farmhouse.

During the next four hours the Wilson home was a beehive of activity. There were people in every room of the farmhouse. Besides the 45 passengers and 3 crew members from the downed plane, the Wilsons entertained a police officer, reporters from Toronto and Peterborough newspapers, and neighbours who dropped by with trays of sandwiches, Christmas cake and cookies.

The next day a Toronto newspaper carried a sidebar story about Charlie Wilson’s wife Ruby, praising her kindness and hospitality. Another paper ran a photo of Charlie Wilson handing out cups of tea. Charlie also handed out heavy wool work socks to guests suffering from cold feet, one of whom mailed back several new pairs of wool socks to the Wilsons a few months later.

There must have been a line up at the telephone that morning, as passengers, eager to meet with family for Christmas holidays, called friends and family with reports of their plane crash. One American serviceman, who planned to marry his fiancée on December 21, called her to postpone the nuptials until he could make new travel arrangements. As he hung up the phone, he told the room that this was his second postponement – his girlfriend was happy that he was still alive, but she let him know this was his last chance!

At about noon, a bus arrived from the airbase in Trenton, where the passengers would stay in barracks overnight before busing back to a U.S. airport the next day. Word of the crash travelled more quickly than the passengers – the local bus driver who took them across the border later told Larry Wilson that the U.S. customs officer greeted him with the words, “So these are the lost souls – away you go!” and waved them across the border.

But what of the abandoned aircraft in Wilson’s back field? Company officials talked about dismantling the plane and shipping it in pieces to an airfield for re-assembly. Yet, aside from the propellers which were bent during the belly landing, and a few dents and holes in the bottom of the fuselage, the plane was still in good condition. In fact, Captain Smelser’s frozen cup of coffee sat undisturbed on the plane’s console.

A team of Canadian air mechanics was sent to the scene to oversee the aircraft’s repairs. The plane needed work on its fuselage, and rudder, a set of new propellers, its wheels down and of course, a runway in order to fly again.

In the dead of winter, local contractors Ron Gagne and Fred Ito, using a D7 bulldozer, an army truck retro-fitted with a backhoe, and a dump truck, lifted the body of the plane up off the ground by building ramps underneath it. Working together, the men then hand-pumped the wheels out of their carriage. With the ramps in place and the wheels supporting the plane, they attached a towline to the nose and eased it up to ground level. Ron Gagne cleared a 2,500-foot runway through the snowy field with his D7dozer while Fred Ito used his improvised backhoe to help install the new propellers.

On January 10, 1952, before a crowd of about 500 curious spectators and reporters, with its engines at full throttle, the airliner raced along the snow-packed runway, inched over the frozen plow ridge at the end of the field and finally lifted off for the Trenton airbase for further repairs.

The Cobourg airplane crash in Christmas 1951 rivals the Gimli glider crash of 1983, and the Hudson River crash of 2009 as a rare, good news plane disaster story. Just right for Ontario’s “feel good” town.

Epilogue: After the crash, a panel of the U.S. Civil Aviation Board determined that the probable cause of the Cobourg crash was the crew’s incompetence in flight planning and navigation. The Board also found that the company, Robins Airlines Inc., failed to check crew competency and provide proper flight training. These deficiencies resulted in the crew becoming lost and making an off-course landing due to fuel exhaustion.

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