Lancaster Bomber Incident ~ Gander, Newfoundland
Aerial View of Gander with accident site on inner peripheral road lower left at the end of the Runway
The RAF 35 Squadron returned en route to Britain via Gander in the summer of 1946; this Goodwill visit ended with the unfortunate death of 4 civilians. The well-known Gander historian, Frank Tibbo, compiled an excellent article on the subject in October 2004 for the Gander Beacon. This article was based primarily on reports from people who had in some way been involved in the landing incident at the time.
The Squadron aircraft departed Mitchel Field on the 22nd August 1946 for Gander where there was further routine maintenance work carried out for the long haul home. On the 23rd August 1946 ‘A’ Flight led by Wing Commander Alan John Laird Craig (Lancaster TW880) departed for Lagens, Azores and then on the 25th flew on to St Mawgan in Cornwall.
TL-L TW892 (F/O Frank J Cheshire) foremost at Gander Base
Gander’s airport runways originally consisting of 3 strips, 4,800 ft. long by 600 ft. wide, had been extended during the last year of the war to take care of heavier wear transport air ships then being brought into service. This expansion had proved invaluable to the transatlantic airlines of that day. The main runway, known as the No. 3 strip, was now 1200 ft wide and 6,000 ft long. Light sport planes could land very comfortably across its width.
On the 23rd August ‘A’ Flight departed for Lagens and then on the 25th left for St Mawgan.
Group Captain R C M Collard left Lagens in the York aircraft on the 27th and arrived at St Mawgans on the morning of the 28th August. He forwarded details of the proposed Reception for the 35 Squadron at Graveley on the 29th or 30th August subject to weather conditions. Various VIP’s press and film representatives had to be assembled and a Luncheon Arranged for the Personnel. Commitments for the imminent 35 Squadron Battle of Britain Commemoration Fly-Past on the 14th September 1946 were also on the agenda.
Also on the 25th of August 1946, ‘B’ Flight took off from Gander for the return trip via Lagens. The squadron departed at night (TL-Q PA414 took off at 23.35 hrs) and unfortunately there was an incident that involved civilian fatalities. Lancaster TL-R (TW870), now being piloted by F/L Pete Stockwell, who had to return to Gander after only 20 minutes in the air as he had problems with his DR compass. He was cleared to land but mistook 2 directional green lights which marked the leeward end of the runway for glide path indicators. As a result the aircraft bounced on the raised road which was parallel to and only 20 yards from the leeward end of the runway. It was also marked with red lights as a prohibited area but there were some civilians standing there. The aircraft’s starboard wheel hit some of them, killing 3 men and 1 woman and injuring another male. The Lancaster was damaged and had to remain at Gander. On investigation, Stockwell was exonerated of all blame (source mostly Alan Cooper).
Note 8 Aircraft took off and F/O John Robinson was the Pilot of TL-R TW870 during the Tour, he had crearly swapped aircraft with F/Lt Pete Stockwell for some reason.
D R Compass
This was a very important instrument, because, not only was it a very good compass, it provided directional sense to the API Mk lV auto-pilot, Mk XIV bomb sight and H2S (mapping radar). The master unit was a gimbal-mounted cylinder near the rear door of the Lancaster, and was a combination magnetic-gyro device: it was not subject to acceleration as was the purely magnetic compass, deviation was eliminated, and, applying variation to a compensating unit at the navigator’s station allowed the navigator to work in true headings. It drove repeaters at the navigator’s and bombardier’s stations, with the pilot’s repeater being the larger of the 2 instruments mounted on the coaming. (The other was a repeater from the loop aerial to allow the pilot to ‘home’ on a radio beacon.
The Lancaster Bomber Tragedy – Frank Tibbo – Gander Beacon- October 11, 2004
August 25, 1946 is a date that recalls very painful memories for some people in Newfoundland. Some of theinhabitants to whom I refer are Gander residents. Royal Air Force No.35 Squadron of Lancaster Bombers were returning homeward from a Goodwill Tour of the USA and took off for the Azores. Shortly after take-off, one of the bombers reported an unserviceable compass and was authorised to return and land on Runway 14. (now Runway 13 – it was then designated Runway 14 and approximately 3,000 feet shorter than it is today. There were then no barriers around the airport. It was normal for people to regularly walk across Runway 14 as a shortcut from the American side to the Canadian side. The perimeter road was so close to the ends of the runways that a system of lights and bells were erected to warn pedestrians and vehicles. The warning system was activated by the control tower a few minutes prior to the arrival of aircraft. The idea was to prevent traffic from travelling on the road until the aircraft had landed. This work well in normal situations, however, when an aircraft departed and had to return immediately, it seems there wasn’t sufficient time for the warning system to be effective. (20 Mins compared to the few claimed above?)
A group of people had gathered near the end of Runway 14, watching a squadron of military aircraft depart. Some of the people were on their way home from the United Church evening service. Fifteen year old Trixie Burton (now Trixie Smith of Cotton Street, Gander), was hold the hand of her friend, 21 year old, Isola Clarke. They were looking towards the runway end. They noticed nothing approaching from behind them – no noise, no gushing of wind, no aircraft engines – nothing! Then, suddenly, Miss Clarke was struck from behind by the landing wheel of the large Lancaster and killed instantly. It was dark and the controllers in the tower didn’t realize what had happened. They saw the aircraft brake sharply and perform, what appeared to be, a ground loop. A ground loop is an uncontrolled turn of approximately 180 degrees. (owing to damge to the undervarriage) The control tower called the aircraft several times but received no reply. The Lancaster aircraft, Registration No.TW870, – landed at 23.59 Greenwich mean time. Three other people were also killed. They were Raymond Parsons, 20, who had just completed 2 years of pre-med at Memorial College, Cyril Brazil, 27, and 57 year old Stanley Rideout, all from St. John’s. William J. Mcdonald of St. Mary’s was among several others who were injured. None of the people gathered around had heard or seen any indication of the approaching disaster.
The fact that they were unaware can be partly explained by the fact that aircraft land into the wind, i.e. facing the wind. The people who were standing near the end of Runway 14 watching aircraft departing from that runway meant that the wind was blowing toward their faces. They would focus on the aircraft noises in front of them but not anything behind them. Something else that added to the cause of the accident was the fact the aircraft did not use its landing lights. This may have been because the crew was too occupied to turn them on or may be as a result of the habit of the night-flying Pathfinder squadron during the war. Those aircraft regularly landed and took off without the use of their landing lights.
Leo Fowler of Fraser Road, Gander, was the ambulance driver for the Sir Frederick Banting Memorial Hospital. He remembers vividly the carnage of deal and broken bodies. It was his job to carry the injured and the dead to the hospital. One of the most difficult things to accomplish was to find someone with the fortitude to help him carry the stretcher containing the body parts.
The accident was reported to Sgt. Clarke, who was in charge of the Gander branch of the Newfoundland Constabulary. He ordered airport officials to close the runway pending an investigation. A Magisterial Inquiry, presided over by the late Beaton J. Abbott, was conducted but the results of the inquiry were never made public by the Government of the day. The Lancaster Bomber was placed in Hangar 8, located on the south side of Runway 14. Hangar 8 was located approximately where the International Terminal is now. It is believed that the aircraft was stored because of the fact that it could have been needed in the subsequent accident enquiry investigation. The hanger was not secured and the aircraft was copiously vandalized and stripped of everything that could be moved – even down to the rudder cables.
In 1950, the aircraft was purchase by a Canadian company headed by Doug Siple, a Trans Canada Airlines pilot. That company also bought the thousands of aircraft parts that had been stored in the bomb shelters around the airport.
Dave Lance, a mechanic with Trans Canada Airlines, was one of the people contracted to make the aircraft airworthy. Mr. Lance later took pilot training and flew with Trans Canada airlines for many years. Eric Wicks, a radio technician with the Newfoundland Government , was part of the team that worked on the aircraft to get it ready to fly. Mr. Lance and Mr. Wicks had to find the smallest man in Gander to crawl back through the tail of the aircraft in order to replace the rudder cables. After it was made airworthy, it was ferried to Montreal. The Lancaster was put to work in a civilian role to transport freight to Northern Canada. Shortly after that it was converted to a Fuel tanker and operated out of Seven Islands. The aircraft crashed and burned at a northern airport. There were no casualties in that crash.
I wish to acknowledge, with thanks, the following people who provided information for this column: the late Clarence Bowering, William Clarke, Royal Cooper, the late Leo Fowler, Mrs. Smith, the late Mr. Wicks, the late Pat Walsh and the late Charlie Warren. -End-
Of course back when Mr. Tibbo did his article, access to Internet resources was rather sketchy. So the following text hopes to put both the visit and the accident in a larger context and to add a few more details. The visit of the RAF 35 Sqdn was part of a Goodwill Tour to the US. This had been organised apparently via discussions in February 1946 between General Ira Eaker who commanded the US 8th Air Force and Air Marshall Sir Norman Bottomley of the RAF Bomber Command. Group Captain Richard Collard was given charge of the operation which would involve 16 Lancasters of 35 Squadron, plus an Avro York C Mk 1 (based on the Lancaster and modified for the Ground Crew and spares cargo).
Tiger Force Livery – White and Black (TL-C TW657 F/Lt Mathers)
Also known as the Very Long Range Bomber Force. Tiger Force was to have been based on Okinawa and would have used Avro Lancasters and Avro Lincolns (the latest development of the Lancaster). Following Victory in Europe on May 8, 1945, East Kirkby, Yorks, became a work-up base for aircraft destined for the Tiger Force. The force was created as part of the proposed Allied invasion of mainland Japan. However, the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced the Japanese to surrender and the need for the Tiger Force ceased. Tiger Force was officially disbanded on October 31, 1945, by which stage it included only British units. The colour scheme for Tiger Force aircraft was white upper-surfaces to reflect solar heat and with black undersides to avoid searchlights; this scheme, despite the cancellation of operations against Japan, was apparent on many post-war Lancasters and Lincolns
One half of the squadron left England (RAF Graveley) on 8 July with the other half leaving on 9 July, following the route St Mawgan – Azores – Gander. When the Lancasters arrived in Gander from the Azores, and got sorted out, they went, as one crew member reportedly said, “to an enormous breakfast at 3.30am. First un-rationed food since 1939, and we all made pigs of ourselves”. After a stop of several days in Gander, the squadron flew on to Mitchell Field, New York, and subsequently toured as far as California. This part of the trip was basically without incident.
During the return trip, the Lancasters departed Mitchell Field, NY, on the 22 August for Gander. On the 23rd August, one half of the squadron, ‘A’ Flight, departed Gander routinely for Lagens Field in the Azores.
The British negotiated for the use of the Azores through a 570-year-old treaty: the Treaty of Windsor (1373). Under an agreement signed on 17 August 1943, Prime Minister Salazar agreed to the British request for Azorean basing rights “in the name of the alliance that had existed between Portugal and Great Britain.” The British were given use of the Azorean ports of Horta on the island of Faial, and Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel, in addition to airfields on Terceira and Sao Miguel islands.
In the evening of 25th of August, it was the turn of ‘B’ Flight to take off from Gander for the trip to Lagens. Lancaster TL-R TW870, piloted by F/L Pete Stockwell, had to return to Gander after 20 minutes due to problems with his compass. He may also have had a problem with his landing lights, which might otherwise have warned of his imminent arrival. He was cleared to land but mistook 2 directional green lights which marked the end of the runway for glide path indicators. As a result, the aircraft bounced on the raised road which was parallel to and 20 yards from the edge of the runway. There were some civilians standing in that area. The aircraft’s starboard wheel hit some of them, killing 3 men and 1 woman and injuring a 5th man.
This was reported in the Toronto Star as follows:
Given that an aircraft wheel is not all that large and given certain reports, it may be possible that some were in fact hit by a whirling Propellor. Apparently the official evaluation mentions the prop but it is possible that the public version was ‘sanitised’, so to speak. The map below from that era indicates approximately where the accident happened. As a guide, the location of the present terminal is indicated. Another way to physically find the area of the accident is go to the corner of the road to the present terminal and the radar station. From that point, look north across the runway and that should be it.
The aircraft involved in the incident is generally known as serial number TW870 and spent quite some time as a derelict in Gander. In RAF Squadron Code it was aircraft TL-R. Above is a photo of this actual airplane taken on 29 April 1946. (Serial Marking TW870)
On investigation, The pilot F/L Stockwell was exonerated of all blame. It is hard to define him but he is here in a photo of F/L Pete Stockwell doing an engine run-up on 6 June 1946 in the days before the start of the Goodwill Tour.
If on that day of 6 June the pilot had found that one of his engines was running a bit rough, he might have been given another airplane; one with a better compass and life in Gander would have continued on in its own happy way. (The accompanying Avro York had probably carried spares equipment including the DR Compass but that may have left for Lagens)
As a follow up on the afterlife of TW870:
It remained virtually derelict – and often cannibalised – in Hanger 8 until October 1950 when it was sold for scrap to Hercules Sales of Toronto, then to Freight Lift Inc. The aircraft was repaired just sufficiently to be flown from Gander to Dorval via Summerside.
In Dorval it was converted to a Fuel Tanker. This included including the fitting of a nose cone that had once been part of a Trans Canada Airlines Lancaster X or Lancastrian passenger aircraft – this nose cone had even been previously used as a chicken coup! After transfer in 1952 to World Wide Aviation (owned by a Ferry Command legend, Don MacVicar), it was registered as CF-GBA and moved to Seven Islands, Quebec. There it was used primarily to resupply outposts of the Iron Ore Company of Canada.
On one of these flights, on 28 July, 1953. the pilot, Capt A R Iba, lost control while landing in a crosswind on the gravel airstrip at Menihek, NL, about 100 kms north-west of the Smallwood Reservoir. The Lancaster hit a rockpile, caught fire and was a total loss. The manifest showed an overloaded aircraft of 2,150 gallons of diesel, 300 gallons of petrol and 800 gallons of Avgas. Happily both crew members were unhurt.
The above photo shows the Lancaster TW870 / TL-R / CF-GBA as it burns on the edge of the landing strip in Menihek. It was taken an unknown person, quite likely a bush pilot. Any identification of the photographer and other pertinent info would of course be appreciated.
Researched and contributed by R G Pelley from his personal historical aviation collections.