by Patrick Madden
Spring, 2008, Altitude
At long last, 75 years, seven months and two days after departing on a charter flight from Winnipeg’s Stevenson Field to Island Lake, Manitoba, Fokker Standard Universal, G-CAJD, nicknamed The Ghost of Charron Lake, returned to its departure point, now renamed the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport.
Coincidentally, it was James A. Richardson’s company – Canadian Airways Limited – that owned the Ghost at the time it was forced to land – and consequently abandoned – on a frozen lake during a snowstorm in December, 1931.
This story about the recovery of Fokker Standard Universal from the bottom of Charron Lake originally appeared in the Spring, 2008 edition of Altitude magazine.
The considerable research involved, the long search for, and the subsequent recovery of the aircraft was the most complicated, difficult and expensive undertaking in the Aviation Museum’s history. From 1974, the year the Aviation Museum was founded, Museum members and volunteer dive teams made several attempts to find the elusive aircraft. Finally, after decades of research, expeditions and more research, on July 4, 2005, success came at last: a recovery team led by myself and my wife Annette Spaulding, using sophisticated sonar equipment, located the Ghost.
In 2006, the same team again headed northeast of Winnipeg to Charron Lake to take on the arduous task of recovering the plane and transporting it back to where it had started. From a logistical and planning point of view, this particular expedition was the largest and most complicated trip to Charron yet. And despite planning this for an entire year, it was apparent that Mother Nature rules and she was not willing to “give up the Ghost” as yet. With changes in plans made midstream because of the fragility of the aircraft, divers were brought in and the recovery was commenced. It was readily apparent that the new plans were working successfully but again, the October weather forced us to postpone the project until the summer of 2007.
On July 1, 2007, the recovery team again travelled to Charron Lake to complete the recovery. It consisted of myself, my wife, Annette, Ken McMillan, Gord Nowicky, Bil Thuma, John Garstang and Jim Worobec.
Our first tasks were to set up our working platform and the pontoon boat from which we worked. The 40-foot boom, which lifts pieces of the aircraft from the lake and places them onto the platform, also had to be raised again at our loading point on an island.
Because of the fragility of the aircraft, it was impossible to raise it from the lakebed in one piece, so in October of 2006, the tail section of the fuselage, from just behind the wing, was cut free. This section was then brought up from the 120-foot depth where the aircraft had sat for 75 years, and relocated to approximately 30 feet of water beside our lift site on the nearby island. Here it had remained in the water for the winter.
On July 3, 2007, John and I dove to the tail section and hooked it up. It was then lifted from the water and gently placed on the platform, which transported it to the base camp. Here, Annette and Bil set to work, spending many hours coating the metal with preservative, soaking the wood to keep it wet and wrapping the entire tail in shrink wrap to conserve it, albeit temporarily. While this was being done, Gordon and Jim constructed a frame around the entire piece to support the fragile artefact completely, while it was being transported by helicopter. (Later, members of the Canadian Conservation Institute would commend Annette, Bil, Gordon and Jim for their efforts by saying they were the best they had ever seen.) John Garstang documented, measured, photographed and made drawings so that a precise-scale, computer-aided drawing of the entire aircraft could be prepared. This will assist in the eventual restoration of the Ghost back to the condition it was found in on the bottom of the lake.
On the morning of July 5, the members of the Canadian Amphibious Search Team (CAST) and of the Chippewa Adventurers Club arrived. The same members returned as were on the October 2006 trip; Ken Lugg, Dave Alderson, Scott Allingham, Dwayne Huot, Earl Johnson and Russ Parker. All of their gear had arrived previously, so they were ready to rock. Following a briefing by John and Pat, the team travelled to the site of the Ghost’s 75-year hibernation. Dave Alderson dove again to the 120-foot depth where he took video footage of the remaining fuselage in order to familiarize everyone with what was to be done, and how best to do it.
This is difficult and hazardous work as the divers carry approximately 150 pounds of equipment and descend to the 120-foot working depth in about two minutes. They then have only 18 minutes to complete their tasks before having to resurface. At that depth, the water is totally without sunlight and the divers rely on lamps situated on their heads similar to those worn by miners. The added difficulty is that sediment is stirred up when they work and they end up in total darkness: they complete their tasks by touch. Not a job for anyone at all claustrophobic. The trip back to the surface is in stages: the divers must stop and remain at the 60-foot level for two to three minutes and again at the 15-foot level for another three or four minutes. Failing to make these stops, the diver risks suffering pressure-related injuries.
The first piece to see the surface was one of the immense skis. The struts were still attached and the entire piece weighed over 200 pounds. Everyone was thrilled at the condition of the ski. Even after being in the water for almost three quarters of a century, it was still in perfect condition. The craftsmanship of this piece was astounding, putting the quality of modern skis to shame.
On July 6, the main cabin of the fuselage finally saw the light of day. It was towed to the boom location and then lifted from the water and gently onto the platform. This took considerable time as the two fuel tanks had to drain as it was lifted. Incredible as it may seem, one of the tanks was still intact and contained fuel (albeit watered down). Once on the platform, it too was taken to the main base to undergo preliminary preservation and wrapping.
The following day, Annette and I dove at the boom location to ensure the recovery of any pieces that may have fallen off while the fuselage was being lifted out of the water. Annette hit pay dirt and found many mechanic’s tools directly below the boom. Several other smaller artefacts were also recovered including what appeared to be the control stick but was later determined to be a handle from some other piece of machinery. It was sure exciting at first to visualize the pilot holding the stick and guiding the Fokker to a landing on the ice in a blizzard.
Now the teams had to be divided with the CAST divers conducting “scavenger dives” to collect the debris that remained on the bottom. Annette and Bil continued their meticulous work in wrapping and conserving the fuselage while Gordon and Jim constructed a second protective frame to transport the cabin portion of the fuselage within.
On July 8, 2007, the divers departed, their job completed, and what a remarkable job these true professionals accomplished.
The next few days were long and at a furious pace with the conserving and wrapping of all the pieces and with the construction of the frames for transport. Finally the two main pieces were in their protective “cradles” and Gordon, Jim, Ken, Pat and John took them to the boom site to be weighed. Naturally, prior to leaving the camp for the scale, wagers were made as to what the final weights would be. Annette was dead on with her guess as to the weight of the tail, 450 pounds; Pat was closest with the weight of the ski at 165 pounds and Ken had the closest guess to the cabin weight of 650 pounds.
Now it was a matter of completing the small tasks while we waited for the arrival of the two helicopters from Provincial Helicopters out of Lac du Bonnet scheduled for July 12. I should point out that John Gibson, owner of Provincial Helicopters, generously donated the use of his helicopters: he only charged for the fuel. This was greatly appreciated. At 1:30 p.m., the first of the two choppers arrived, a Twin Star with a long line that would transport the larger cabin section. The chopper landed on a small spit of rock that had been cleared for them and the platform was brought alongside. The long line was attached to the protective frame and then the helicopter slowly lifted off while Bil and I made sure all was clear. That said, excitement and drama were still present as the drogue – a device that kept the load from twisting as it travelled – became caught on one of the cleats on the platform. Both of us had to scramble quickly to clear this and once it was free the chopper was able to head off with the The Ghost of Charron Lake back in the air after all those years.
The next load was lighter and was taken by a Jet Ranger helicopter. This was a little trickier because it did not sling with a long line. As the helicopter hovered, I snapped the cables to the lift hook on the belly of the chopper. This was my first experience having a helicopter thrashing a few inches over my head, and once my heart stopped pounding, I felt much better. The chopper slowly lifted up and headed off south to Lac du Bonnet where Gordon waited with a semi-trailer unit to transport everything to the Museum in Winnipeg.
As soon as the second helicopter load was on its way, the team packed the remaining equipment and left Charron Lake for the long flight back to Winnipeg. We arrived late and met Gordon at the Museum to assist with the unloading of the Fokker. By the time all was secure, it was around midnight, July 12, 2007.
The following morning, the Ghost was finally presented to the world at a well-attended media conference arranged by the Museum. One notable highlight was the presence of Audrey McLennan and her husband Gordon. Audrey is the daughter of the Ghost’s pilot, Stuart McRorie, and has been an avid supporter of the recovery efforts throughout.
Now the long, painstaking process of conservation begins. The Ghost may be home but the story has not ended.
Patrick Madden is a former diver with the RCMP in Manitoba who, together with his wife, Annette Spaulding, headed the Fokker Aircraft Recovery Team.
History of the Recovery
- December 10, 1931: Fokker Standard Universal G-CJAD departs Stevenson Field, Winnipeg (now Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport) for Island Lake, Manitoba. Due to weather, aircraft makes an emergency landing on Charron Lake. Pilot Stuart McRorie and engineer “Slim” Forrest, are discovered by Tom Boulanger, a trapper, who takes them by dog team to Little Grand Rapids, where the pair are picked up and returned to Winnipeg some two weeks after the crash. James A. Richardson’s company, Canadian Airways Limited, decides not to salvage the aircraft which, upon impact, had broken through the ice up to its wings.
- Spring 1932: Aircraft disappears into Charron Lake when ice melts. Charron Lake is large and very deep. It covers about 13.51 square miles. The aircraft’s surface area is about 376.74 square feet.
- 1974-86: Five or six search attempts, with no results. Research done in this period includes interviews with pilot Stuart McRorie.
- March 1975: First organized search initiated by the Western Canada Aviation Museum’s volunteer dive team in cooperation with that of the Manitoba Underwater Council. No results.
- 1986-1992: Research undertaken but no dive activity.
- Mid-1990s: George Lammers, a former Curator with the Aviation Museum, citing the aircraft’s illusive nature, nicknames it The Ghost of Charron Lake. The name sticks.
- July 2005: A recovery team, using sophisticated side-scan sonar technology and led by Patrick Madden and Annette Spaulding, locates the aircraft in 120 ft. of water.
- July 2006: Two attempts fail to raise the aircraft; however, the fuselage is cut in half in preparation for the next salvage operation; engine, windscreen and instruments recovered and airlifted to the Museum.
- July 2007: Both sections of the fuselage and skis recovered, airlifted by helicopter to Lac du Bonnet and then transported by flatbed trailer to the Museum in Winnipeg.
This story about the recovery of Fokker Standard Universal from the bottom of Charron Lake originally appeared in the Spring, 2008 edition of Altitude.