The Flying Firemen
There were few clear trails on the rocky southwest face of Langford’s Skirt Mountain. Craig Davidson and his sister Bonnie Stacey had to claw through alder and thick brush on the slope. It was difficult work. Especially because they were looking for the place where, 40 years earlier, their father had died.
Their dad, Alex Davidson, was a pilot. During World War II he tested Hurricanes and Spitfires, and trained Czechs to fight with the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. He went to university after the war and had a family, then ended up in Victoria, running training flights in old Harvards and test-piloting planes for Fairey Aviation, the company that converted the giant Martin Mars flying boats into waterbombers. (One of those planes is active this week in California.)
The sciences of forest management and fire control weren't as developed back then, and the need for fire-fighting aircraft was huge. But the Martin Mars planes belonged to the logging companies, and the B.C. Forest Service didn’t have waterbombers of its own, so in 1965 Davidson started his own outfit – The Flying Firemen – using two converted war-era PBY-5A Cansos, based at the Pat Bay airport.
The Flying Firemen were kept very busy. In 1966, Davidson bought a third Canso and recruited Robert “Paddy” Moore (photo far right), a fellow WWII ace and Fairey test pilot based in Nova Scotia, to join the company the following year. It was smart planning. In the summer of 1967 a heat wave swept across British Columbia, and fires broke out everywhere. On Sunday, July 16, at about 4:30 p.m., Davidson got an urgent call. A blaze had erupted on Skirt Mountain, near Goldstream park.
Davidson and Moore skimmed their #2 Canso along Saanich Inlet, scooping up more than 1000 gallons of water and dumping it on the flames. A crowd gathered along the Trans-Canada Highway to watch as the pilots roared back and forth between the inlet and the fire, for more than two hours. And then, on a low pass, the left wingtip struck a tree, and shattered. The crowd gasped as the plane smashed into the mountainside and exploded, killing the pilots instantly.
The tragedy was front-page news for weeks. Transport Canada determined that the probable cause was “misjudgement of altitude”, but could not say who was flying at the time. (Photos from the report are above.) Papers across the country reprinted the photograph below, of a rescue worker looking at the charred airframe.
It was probably the most shocking postwar plane crash in Greater Victoria’s history. And yet, 40 years later, it seemed to have been publicly forgotten. (I note that it didn't even qualify for the "This Day in History" feature in the Times Colonist.) I wondered: Was there any trace of it left? So last summer, as the anniversary of the accident approached, I contacted Alex Davidson’s children, Craig and Bonnie, and we went to see what remained.
Les Bjola, one of the developers of the Bear Mountain golf resort atop the peak, told me he’d seen the wreck near the gravel pit, above the highway. Even with that bit of information, we spent three hours combing the craggy, overgrown slope, until Craig called out, “It’s here! There’s debris all over the hill!”
A landing-gear strut lay tangled in the bush. One of the rusted engines sat in a clearing; someone had tried to remove it, even though tampering with an old plane wreck is prohibited by the province's Heritage Conservation Act. Bonnie and I found Craig standing beside a chunk of the fuselage. He was quiet.
Craig was only 16 when his father died. He was in a car near Calgary, when he heard on the radio that a waterbomber had crashed in Victoria. “I hoped it wasn’t him, but I had a feeling it was. I knew all the guys; it was my summer job, helping the mechanics, gassing the planes up, polishing windshields. So I knew it was bad news.”
His dad’s partner kept the business going, and Craig worked for the Flying Firemen the next year. But on August 8, 1968, another one of their Cansos crashed in the Sooke Hills near Jarvis Lake, killing pilot Tommy Swanson and engineer Tom Worley. “When we lost the next plane, I’d had enough.” Craig became a commercial fisherman.
His father’s vision survived, though. In 1969, a former Alaskan named R.L. “Bud” Rude bought The Flying Firemen; he got in trouble with the tax department, and sold the company to Alex Wood, who grew it into the largest amphibious waterbombing outfit in the world. (The company ceased business in 1996, a victim of competition from federally-subsidized CL 215 waterbombers built by Quebec-based Canadair.) Cansos are still in use today; if you’re driving up the Island highway you can see one that's for sale, parked on the tarmac at the Nanaimo airport.
There’s still no memorial for the Flying Firemen. Development plans for Bear Mountain do include streets named Alexander Davidson Crescent and Paddy Moore Place, high atop the peak where the pilots died. But perhaps the best tribute to who they were rests in the thoughts of their families.
Paddy Moore’s widow Kathleen lives near Beacon Hill Park. She told me they met when they were teenagers in northern Ireland, and he was a trainee pilot; her father often shouted when Paddy flew low over their house, trying to impress her. He later won a Distinguished Service Cross for “gallantry, skill and devotion” while fighting in the Pacific.
They had only been in B.C. for two weeks when Paddy died. Sidney, where they lived, was just a village then. “I could write a book about the kindness of the people of Sidney,” she said. Her neighbours brought her cakes and the mail, and the local tailor fitted her three sons with suits for the funeral. Test pilots came from as far away as England and Africa for the service. “A bond was formed between those men,” she explained.
What they likely shared was the joy of flying, the thrill of pushing an aircraft's limits – and the knowledge of their own fragility.
“I felt sad when I saw the wreckage,” Alex Davidson’s daughter Bonnie told me. “My dad was 43. I’m nearly 60, and my children are in their 30s, nearly the age he was when he died. I thought of how much life they have left, and it was sad. He never saw his kids grow into adults, or his grandchildren.”
UPDATE (March 16, 2009): As of today, the Skirt Mountain crash site is now included in the B.C. Archeology Branch’s database of protected heritage sites.
UPDATE (November 19, 2009): Elwood White, author of Wings Across The Water: Victoria’s Aviation Heritage, is researching a book about The Flying Firemen. Last month, he attended a reunion in Sidney of the former pilots and crew members – who also reminisce about the company in an online forum.