Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

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.

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. Even with his directions, 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, and you can actually fly in one at a warplane heritage museum in Ontario.

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.

UPDATE (July 16, 2017): Today is the 50th anniversary of this historic tragedy. Recently I was told by someone living in the area that visitors have been removing pieces of the wreck, so I have removed any references to its exact location. 


At 1:10 AM, Blogger radmoore said...

Hi Ross,

I am Paddy Moore's grandson Andrew. As somebody who never met his grandfather and knows of him only from tell tales, I suck up any fine grained detail. It is a shame that I have never visited the site where he crashed, something I hope to do the next time I am in BC (which doesn't happen very often - I live in Germany).

Anyways, thanks very much for the write up. It left me pondering on a random Thursday morning.

all the best,

At 11:10 AM, Blogger ross said...

Thanks for the message. I was honoured to tell part of your grandad's story here - he was a true hero. Let me know when you're in Victoria and I'll be happy to take you up to the site, if you want.

At 8:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ross,

I just got this link from one of Kathleen's friends; I met her at Kathleen's memorial service. I am Paddy's granddaughter (Andrew's sister). It is hard to imagine the kinds of risks these pilots took and take every day- in this age where most of us are not even trusted to safely navigate a wet floor! Paddy is a treasured figure in our family history, a man of legendary abilities in many things- sadly not all of which were completely passed down to some of his progeny- as I am reminded of every time I try to parallel park. Thank you so much for providing this information. We are very proud of him!!

Sabine (Ivison)

At 8:40 PM, Blogger ross said...

Thanks for the message. I am sorry to hear that Kathy passed away. She had a great spirit, and I was pleased to spend an evening or two with her talking about Paddy and seeing the fabrics she had created.

At 6:06 PM, Blogger adam said...

Im trying to find this site. any help? GPS ? I live on bear mountain so Its easy for me.

At 5:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanx for sharing your web page we us...I am a wreck-hunter and have been researching for the past ten years the demise of Canso-A CF-FOQ that struck a rock face of Mt. Benson here in Nanaimo on Oct 17th 1951. I would like to visit both crash sites of the Canso-A water-bombers that crashed in the Goldsteam and Mallahat area, hopfully next summer...any assistance woulb be appreciated to help find them...thanking you kindly....Stanley strazza (stanlanders4@yahoo.ca)

At 5:46 PM, Blogger David Smith in Sidney BC said...

I was a skinny 16 year old with a water tank on my back and a matick in my hand. This was my first fire and the first drop I had witnessed from a Canso. As the plane roared overhead I saw the wing strike a tree and the end of it tumbled through the air like a sheet of plywood. The engines roared and I thought for a minute that somehow the crew was going to be OK. Then came the sickening crash and fireball. I told the ranger - the bomber crashed - the bomber crashed. He didnt see it and said naw they always come in that low." I remember that everytime I drive by. Those poor brave men. I am glad to hear that it is going to be a heritige site. Is there an official accident report. I would be interested in knowing more about it. Thanks for this story.
David Smith

At 8:50 AM, Blogger ross said...

Hi David, thanks for your story. I've uploaded the summary of the accident report to http://www.fileden.com/files/2008/9/11/2092947/FlyingFiremen1967AccidentReport.pdf

At 10:16 PM, Anonymous Lewis H. said...

I've seen and been to many times the crash site at Jarvis Lake in the sooke hills. I've spoken to Fred (old time resident and one of the gents who dealt with the crash), he told me what had happened. Very sad. I've taken pictures of the crash site...all but one never turned out. Very strange. There are still pieces of it their. I've hunted and fished that area most of my younger life. Absolutely one of the most peaceful places I've ever been.

At 4:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was driving up island with my family to go to the Malahat restaurant that day. My Dad's relatives from Calgary were with us and he wanted a great look-out view to show then Victoria. I was sitting on the east side of the car when around the MacKenzie area we saw this plane pass over us going south. My Dad told us he had heard on the radio ( we never listened ) that there was a fire on Finlason Hill ahead. When we got to just south of Langford Lake the plane flew by us on the west side, circled in front of us and made its run against the fire which was spreading down the mountain to the highway. I was looking out the east side window watching the plane when it crashed. Saw the entire accident and the massive fireball afterwards. My Father pulled over just past the rocks before Goldstream and went back to see if he could do anything but of course it was too late. Will never forget this. Thank you Alex Davidson, Thank you Robert “Paddy” Moore for you bravery.

At 11:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember that day, I was 12 years old. I was with my parents, brothers, and sister, heading up island when we passed the fire. Then I heard about the crash later. Tommy Swanson crashed at Jarvis Lake and I'm wondering if he was related to the Swanson family I met 22 years later. I was involved with Vicky Swanson for seven years. Her mother's name was Bea Swanson; I am wondering if Tommy Swanson was Bea's husband? Bea had told me her husband was a pilot that died in a water bomber plane crash. If so, he would be my daughter's grandfather. Does anyone have more information relating to the Jarvis crash? bakerspecial364@hotmail.com

At 11:29 AM, Blogger Asus tablet said...

I'm granddaughter of tom Swanson why is there almost nothing about him my mom Vicky Swanson passed aswell as well as her mom Bea Swanson Tom. Swanson being her Dad I need answered about TOM SWANSON ANYTHING PLEASE! email is anita.xo@hotmail.com

At 9:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I lived across the valley from Skirt Mtn and was standing on our front lawn with my family when that crash happened. We had come home from our beach cabin earlier in the afternoon when we were told about a fire on the mountain but it was close to Mt Finleyson not near the Sooke Lake Road end of Skirt Mtn. My older brother was 17 at the time and he went to volunteer for fire suppression crews as did several other young men from the area. We could see the smoke rising but no flames from our home. The Canso was filling up in Finlyson Arm just north of the mountain and we were all very excited to watch them circle overhead our house and take the run at the mountain. They would come south and do a "keyhole" turn, crossing over their own path to turn towards the mountain. I believe they did that twice and then when they did the third trip the pilot did a U-Turn instead and I believe it put him too low on the mountain and the next thing we saw was a piece of a wing fly off the plane and then it nosed in and exploded. This started a separate fire that raged all night and came within 100 feet of the highway and the Shell gas station and homes at the base of Skirt Mountain.
I can still close my eyes and see that accident, I was only 12 yrs old and it certainly left an indelible mark on me.
Karen G LaCroix

At 4:15 PM, Blogger marsfan60 said...

I have a nice shot of CF-FFX Tanker 2 sitting at Pat Bay.Taken by my good friend Elwood White.

At 6:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curious what the gps coordinates or location is as I am huge into BC history. Been up the hill looking but so far have not found the location. I can be emailed at Teamleda@shaw.ca.

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi, I have wondered about the site since the crash. I wonder if the Bear mountain project bulldozed it over.

Those Mars bombers deserve a Canada monument.

This is a long shot but did you ever get the location of the site?

Getting back into hiking and would like to visit/pay my respects.
Thanks, Bruce

At 4:10 PM, Blogger bru th said...

Hi Ross, I would like to try to find/visit the site. Is it on private property?
Any location help would be appreciated.
PS, I would like to share this. Some years back I was taking pictures of the (two? that were left) Mars bombers picking up in Esq by the ships.(Thetis Lk fire) I had just put my camera away as another run was coming out from behind the trees/shoreline. I guess the plane may have been coming in a bit close to to the point that juts out by the old saw mill site. Or for just a better take off angle? Anyhow,
The plane tilted over to what looked like full 90* to the water. The wing tip looked pretty close to the water. Pretty nice flying.
It would have made a great shot. Those planes are to me part of growing up on Van Isle West Coast. And the awesome pilots... very cool.

At 6:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:56 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you very much for taking the time to post this. I too would like to pay my respect one of these days...

At 8:57 PM, Blogger Pan said...

I wasn't born until Nov, of 1967. But I grew up in Parksville, and spent a lot of time all over the island. I first saw the Canso airplanes at Cassidy airport in the early 1980's parked at the very farthest end of the runway. I was in Air cadets at the time, and I had misjudged the wind, and came in way too low. when I spied both of the remaining planes, just tethered to the ground, with the light remnants of tarps covering them. When I got back to our hangar, I asked my CFO what those two planes were, and I was directed to talk to the Major. When I got back to base, I enquired, and I was told a little about the history of the Flying Firemen. I did a lot of digging, and spent a lot of my summer in the archives building. All I had ever wanted to be was a Military pilot, for medical reasons that never happened. I spent 3 summers in my youth, working for the Martin Mars group, cleaning, and fueling planes, running errands. I got to ride in the Mars from time to time, but I got to fly the Piper Cub now & again, that Mars owned..

I miss seeing the Canso's at Cassidy, it was cool when they were brought down to the south and, and were being restroed..


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