The “Ghost of Charron Lake”

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

It is called the “Ghost of Charron Lake” and until recently had been lost to a watery grave at the bottom of a northern Manitoba lake.

The first photos taken of the Fokker Standard Universal aircraft,  which had the call letters G-CAJD, showed an eerie skeletal outline of an airframe and wings — the wood and fabric of the wings, tail section and fuselage have long since disintegrated, evidence of the effects of having rested on its skiis beneath 40 metres of water for nearly 75 years. 

The aircraft’s engine and prop, which had torn away from the airframe, and some instruments were recently recovered, but raising the airframe has been delayed until October.

“This was the most complex retrieval operation in our 32-year history,” said Shirley Render, executive director of the Western Canada Aviation Museum, which co-ordinated the rescue.

“We have retrieved aircraft from  the sides of mountains and from the bottom of lakes, but this salvage operation was a challenge for many reasons, not the least of which was the remote location, which meant that all personnel and equipment had to be flown  in by float plane.”

According to the WCAM, two remote-operated vehicles (ROVs), pontoon platforms, sophisticated computer equipment and skilled personnel covering all aspects from diving to conservation to film-making were all part of the recovery operation.

Two CBC units and U.K.-based Windfall Films, for Mega Moves and National Geographic, documented the recovery operation from the lake which is located 310 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

Underwater video of the aircraft and testing with the ROVs showed the four lifting lugs, originally used to hoist the aircraft when changing from wheels to floats or skis, were too compromised to be used to lift the airplane. 

During one dive with ROV Navajo, it became entangled in what turned out to be a large landing light that had fallen off complete with its wiring. ROV Phantom was “splashed” and, three hours later, both came up.

“The bonus to this event was the retrieval of items we might have lost had it not been for the entanglement,” said the WCAM in a press release. “With Canadian Conservation Institute specialist Nancy Binnie on-site, we were able to go through the initial conservation and documentation steps on this complex item.”

Ken Lugg, the Canadian Amphibious Search Team (CAST) dive team co-ordinator, said once it was determined that the airframe could not be raised by using the the ROVs to make attachments to the aircraft’s four lifting points, the WCAM made a call to CAST to see if they could provide a team of divers.

“We were able to assemble a team of five deep-diving technicians,” said Lugg. Three of the divers were from CAST and two were from the Chippewa Adventure Club. CAST is a non-profit organization which recovers the bodies of drowning victims after 

official searches are abandoned. Its aim is to bring closure to relatives and friends of victims.

“The water was 43°F and dark, but there was decent visibility if you didn’t disturb the silt,” said Dave Alderson, the training co-ordinator for CAST 

and an experienced deep-sea 

diver. Employed by Winnipeg-based Underwater Scuba & Sport, he has dived on such wrecks as the Italian liner Andrea Doria, which sank off Nantucket, Massachusetts, on July 25, 1956.

Lugg said the first task was to do an integrity survey to determine the state of the airframe. “The human touch of a diver is a true indication of fragility,” he added.

“The centrepiece of the fuselage was fairly solid,” said Alderson,” but we didn’t want to shift it until we developed a plan.”

“It will come out of there more or less intact, but we have to be very careful with it,” said Lugg. “It’s a treasured artifact.”

That’s why an attempt to raise the airframe will not be made until a detailed plan is formulated for the recovery in early October.

Reporting on the final day of the recovery effort on July 17, the WCAM said: “Four dives later, we had our first major prize — the Wright J-5 engine complete with a perfect Hamilton prop with decal still in place.” 

Alderson said the surprising part of the recovery was that the radial engine was still fully lubricated and had compression in it. In fact, engine oil turned out to be a bit of a problem. 

“There was oil over everything,” he added. “We had to decontaminate all our gear. Petroleum products and rubber products are not the friends of divers.”

The engine was partially raised,  taken to a nearby cove and then lifted out of the water and packaged for preservation. It was airlifted by a Canadian Forces CH-146 Griffin helicopter and taken to Deer Lake, Ontario, where it was transferred to a four-engine Canadian Forces C-130 Hercules for transportation to the tarmac right in front of the WCAM. The engine and artifacts now have a permanent home in the museum.

The recovery of the engine and prop, as well as other artifacts such as instruments, a piece of fuel line and three pieces of the engine cowling, was also witnessed by George Richardson — whose father had originally purchased the aircraft for Western Canada Airways (later Canadian Airways Ltd.) over seven decades ago — and his son and grandson. 

All previous attempts over the course of more than 30 years to locate the Fokker Standard Universal had been futile. It wasn’t until July 2, 2005, that searchers were finally successful.

A November 1989 article by Rolly Wickstrom in the WCAM Aviation Review magazine outlined the sixth attempt — the first was in 1974 — from June 1 to 3 of that year to find the aircraft.

Wickstrom wrote that six volunteers had been provided with information on the aircraft’s possible location by pilot Stuart McRorie, who landed the Fokker on frozen Charron Lake on December 10, 1931, and a map location given years later by the wife of a trapper camped on an adjacent point during the emergency landing.

With this information, the WCAM volunteers laid out in a grid pattern and then mapped the grid.

“A careful series of overlapping echo-sounding transects were made and all suspicious ‘bumps’ on the bottom were marked and then investigated by the SCUBA diving team ...

“Because the area to be searched was too large for complete coverage in the time available, only the lost likely location received attention.”

All efforts proved fruitless that time around, but Wickstrom wasn’t deterred. “... consolation was taken from the fact that knowing precisely where it wasn’t is equally as important as knowing where it is.” 

Wickstrom expressed confidence that the aircraft would soon be found.

How wrong he was. 

It would be another 16 years before the Fokker’s watery grave was located. No wonder, the long-elusive aircraft became known in aviation lore as the “Ghost of Charron Lake,” a name coined by late WCAM curator George Lammers.

Pilot McRorie and mechanic “Slim” Forrest were forced to land their 

ski-equipped aircraft in 1931 on Charron Lake when they encountered a blinding snowstorm. The plan was 

to wait out the snowstorm and then recommence their trip to deliver 

mining equipment and food to Island Lake.

“As he banked low over the lake edge,” wrote Wickstrom, “he kicked his aircraft into wind and lined up to land alongside the dark-treed shoreline for horizontal reference. Refuge from a white-out was probably paramount in his mind, although the thought of poor ice may have also been a concern.

In True-Life Adventures of Canada’s Bush Pilots, aviation author Bill Zuk said McRorie descended in shallow dives from 2,000 feet to 200 feet and then spotted a bluish hue which he judged to be solid ice.

In a 1981 interview, related by Zuk, McRorie said, “I wanted to land while I knew where I was” on the 35-square-kilometre lake.

McRorie aimed his glide to “a long stretch on the lake on the northern, north-east side,” intending to land at a spot 200 yards (60.96 metres) out.

After the emergency landing around noon, the Fokker broke through new ice while taxiing closer to shore (McRorie said 25 to 30 yards — 7.6 to 9.14 metres — from shore), sinking up to its broad wings under the weight of the cargo of mining equipment, tools and canned meat.

Since the Fokker had an open cockpit, McRorie was able to jump out without getting his feet wet, but Forrest in the cabin with the cargo got a soaking before he safely escaped the sinking plane.

(Next time: McRorie and Forrest trek out of the bush and are rescued.)