Wednesday, March 30, 2005

 

"Caribou" Jim Meets "Unforgiving" Lake Winnipeg!!

Winter/Spring, late 1990's
Doug “McLeod” Burton and I (I’ll tell you the ‘McLeod’ joke at the end) were sitting in the office at Northway Aviation’s Base in Pine Dock when the VHF radio crackled and came to life: “Pine Dock, can you read me?” I grabbed the microphone and stated “Station calling Pine Dock, go ahead.” “We’re down on the ice!” was the reply. Ah, shit! I knew that the seriousness of the situation unfolding would depend on what type of aircraft they were in and how the landing gear was equipped. “Where exactly are you, and what happened?” I queried. “We are by Pine Dock somewhere, and we crashed into the ice!” came the voice back from the radio. “Which way from Pine Dock are you, north, east, or south?” I asked, trying to get the voice to be more specific. “My GPS still works, and it reads we are 30 miles north of Riverton!” said the voice. “OK”, I said, “you are to the south of us. I will come and pinpoint you. How many are with you and are there any injuries?” “We are banged up, but I think everybody is OK. There are 4 of us,” the voice said. I made one last transmission; “Who am I talking to, and whose aircraft is down?” I asked. I wanted to know whose aircraft it was so we could notify the owners immediately. The reply came back: “It’s Jim, Steve, it’s Jim.” Crap! Now I recognized the voice. It was “Caribou” Jim! Doug and I bolted for the door!

“Caribou” Jim flew a Cessna 210 for a local construction company. The 210 was for many years the fastest production single-engine piston aircraft made, being able to cruise around 200 mph depending on how equipped. Jim knew the area of central Manitoba quite well, as he had flown the region with other air carriers, and had been employed with the construction company for a number of years. The construction company did road and sewer and water construction at a number of Reserves in Manitoba. Jim flew the 210 to supply the construction crews with parts and materials, and he also did crew changes. On this flight in particular he was returning from the Island Lake area and was going to drop off an employee on the turf strip in Riverton, before continuing south to Winnipeg.

Unforgiving Lake Winnipeg”. Even when she is frozen, she can lure unsuspecting men to a date with injury or doom. The “Big Lake” is a marvelous sight to behold on a beautiful, sunny, winter day. On a low overcast day, like the day of the crash, the lake is very gloomy, and the surface height is hard to judge visually due to the low-light conditions. It all looks flat and white.

“McLeod” and I made it outside and ran for the company Cessna 185, C-FZZP. We would use ZZP as it had wheel-skis, in case we could land on the “Big Lake”, though I seriously doubted it. We warmed up the Continental IO-520 engine, and with me flying, took off from Pine Dock and headed south over Lake Winnipeg. We leveled off at about 1500 feet above ground level (agl) and began to survey the featureless expanse of white before us. We flew along, and after a short period of time we could see something dark in the distance. As we got closer we could see it was the downed airplane. It was out in the middle of the lake south of Calder’s Dock. I circled overhead and Jim came on the radio and asked us to land and pick them up. I told him I would have to survey the area first. I flew around and my trained eyes could just make out the surface, and I could see what I knew were large, looming, hard drifts. There were also some cracks and pressure ridges in the crash area. All things considered, my “Spidey sense” instructed me not to land, as the low-light conditions would not enable me to pick out an obstruction-free landing zone. I would have to land blind onto whatever was on the surface, and with airplane pieces already strewn about the ice, I wasn’t about to add to them. Jim called again and asked me to land, and I told him they would have to wait for ski-doos. I then called Base, and an employee and some local fishermen headed out onto the lake by ski-doo to rescue the passengers from the downed aircraft. I then circled the area until the ski-doos came so they would see where the crash-site was. Then “McLeod” and I headed back to Pine Dock, to commence the flying we had to do in the afternoon.

A couple of hours later, I was returning to Base after my last flight, and I was curious as to what had transpired during the rescue of the occupants of the downed aircraft. I landed, put my plane to sleep for the night, and headed for the lounge with “McLeod” to have a beer and to learn facts of the rescue. We walked through the door, and we were greeted by a smiling “Caribou Jim”!! (a half-cut “Caribou Jim”, I might add!) I couldn’t figure out why he was still here, and hadn’t gone for a check-up at the hospital (70 miles away). I learned from one of the rescuers that the passengers and pilot had been transported back to Pine Dock, and 2 passengers jumped in a truck, that their company kept at the airport, and left, and the other passenger arranged his own ride home, and left Jim, the pilot, behind. Jim had bruising and swelling all about his face, and also had a sore neck. I decided to give him a ride south to Riverton where we could arrange for a ride for him home, or to the hospital.

We got to Riverton an hour later, and “Smilin” Caribou Jim wanted to stop and use the phone at the Sandy Bar Hotel, so we stopped. We waited for Jim, and then found out he was talking on the phone, but had also ordered a “round” for us. We had a couple, and kept asking Jim when his ride was coming. He danced around the question, and became more incoherent as the night progressed. Finally, I phoned his company and got ahold of an employee that basically couldn’t have given a shit if Jim got a ride or not. I gave him the number at the hotel, and told him to call back when he had arranged a ride for Jim. He was a real arse. I couldn't believe the attitude of this company toward their pilot. Actually, in the years to come, this company offered me a job after they bought a twin-engined airplane. This incident with Jim was a major factor in my refusal of the job.

Half an hour later, the phone rang and it was for me. It was an employee from the construction company, and he said he would pick Jim up in one hour. Good. Jim was getting pretty tipsy.

The employee showed, picked up Jim, thanked us for looking after him, and left. I was relieved Jim would now be taken home and looked after. We had a few more and called it a night. It had been a long day.

We got some more facts about the accident in the next couple of days. The Cessna 210 that Jim was flying is a retractable-gear airplane, but they had been experiencing some problems with the gear. When Jim left Island Lake, he left the gear “down”, and was to have it looked at once he got south. This fact may have saved their lives, as with the gear down there is a restriction on airspeed, so they were flying slower than they normally would have been. It seems they descended straight into the lake surface at a reduced cruise power. The low-light conditions, a tired pilot, over a large lake with no visual vertical reference, I can see how it happened, and it did. This is not to say that it should have happened, as it shouldn’t have. People are only human, and a mistake was made. It could have been a lot worse, but for some reason the aircraft stayed upright and straight as it came to a stop. It left a debris trail of wingtips, landing gear, and numerous other pieces.

The aircraft was salvaged from the “Big Lake”, and was considered a write-off, though I am sure someone will have rebuilt it by now. “Caribou” Jim lost his job with the construction company, as they had no plane for him to fly. I saw him in the following months, and he had faint recollection of anything after he arrived at Pine Dock following his accident. He did tell me that he sure was sore the next day. I guess so!!! (with a wicked 'hangover' to boot!!!) He flew seasonally for a couple of other aircraft charter companies in the couple of years following his crash, but now drives truck, basically having given up on aviation.

Today when I fly past the area on Lake Winnipeg where Jim crashed, I am reminded of how calm, serene, docile, and placid the lake can be. Then, I snap to a higher state of attention and awareness, as I know how someone inattentive and unaware can be snared by the invisible tentacles reaching upward from the lake. If you don’t believe this, just ask “Caribou” Jim!

(Oh yeah, the “McLeod” joke!

What is the difference between a Scotsman and ’The Rolling Stones’?

The ‘Rolling Stones’ have been known to yell “Hey, you, get off of my cloud!”, whereas a Scotsman has been known to yell “Hey, McLeod, get off of my ewe!”)


A Bombardier handles traversing the surface of Lake Winnipeg much better than a Cessna 210....... Posted by Hello


After the crash, "Caribou" Jim morphs into his alter-ego and makes a hasty get-away....... Posted by Hello


Great aircraft C-FZZP outfitted for winter on the ice at Charron Lake, MB. She also took "McLeod" and me to the scene of a crash on Lake Winnipeg....... Posted by Hello


ZZP and my friends "McLeod" (left) and Randy. A beautiful winter day spent in the bush with friends always makes the beer taste better at the end of the day.....  Posted by Hello

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