Remnants of aviation tragedy uncovered

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Pieces of a tragic moment in Alberta aviation history were unearthed this summer near Leduc, where they sat undiscovered for nearly 45 years.

This past summer City of Leduc staff began preliminary work to create the Leduc Lions Park on land on the north side of Telford Lake, an area where a Pacific Western Airlines Boeing 707 cargo jet, Flight 3801, crashed and burned in 1973.

More than four decades after the crash, city staff were surprised to discover just how many pieces of debris were still scattered among the trees and bush.

Retired PWA mechanic Rick Kuzyk was called in to determine if the numerous pieces of aluminum belonged to ill-fated flight and to help the city determine the historical value of the debris.

Kuzyk, who is also a volunteer at the Alberta Aviation Museum, mentioned the discovery of the debris to a friend one day at the museum.

The museum’s head curator, Lech Lebiedowski, overhead the story and thought the museum should get involved in some way.

Lebiedowski and others from the museum – like Ryan Lee, an archeologist and the archivist with the 418 Squadron Association – began work to document dozens of pieces of debris. They photographed, mapped and catalogued pieces as small as the size of a finger to as large as seven or eight metres. One piece, about the size of a dining room table, Lebiedowski hoped would someday be displayed at the museum.

Lebiedowski says the experience of being at the old crash site this past summer was strange and eerie. As he documented the debris, planes were flying by, in what seemed like only a few metres overhead, each preparing to land just like the Boeing 707 attempted to do 45 years earlier.

As someone with a lifetime of experience in aviation history and crash site investigations, Lebiedowski is aware of the grim facts around the crash.

Flight 3801 was flying between Toronto and Seoul, South Korea, with a refueling stop in Edmonton, while transporting 86 Holsteins. It was snowing heavily with gusting winds as the large jet prepared to land around 8:30 am on Jan. 2, 1973.

Twenty-seven-year-old First Officer Lowell Doerksen was at the controls as veteran Captain Arthur Jung observed. Doerksen had limited experience landing this type of plane. The plane descended too quickly. Crash investigators speculate that Captain Jung attempted at the last minute to correct the descent, but it was too late.

Three kilometers short of the runway, the jet clipped some poplar trees, hit the ground, struck some powerlines and plunged into a large ridge in the middle of a gravel pit. The cockpit section and a forward portion of the fuselage broke away and the cattle were thrown up to 100 metres forward through the open front section before the plane caught fire. All five men on board died.

Lebiedowski has a few theories on why it has taken so long to remove the debris.

“I think it is because the accident happened during the winter,” he says. “A lot of the debris was not visible. It was during a snow storm. This was also on private land at the time. So, after the initial clean up, I don’t believe there was any contract to complete the clean-up and it ended up remaining there for many years. Then, of course, it was overgrown with vegetation.”

Christine Isaac, Leduc’s community development coordinator, says the new park will feature a network of multi-use trails as well as an interpretive display telling the story of the crash and displaying a piece of the wreckage.

As for the Alberta Aviation Museum, it plans to build a display box containing the large piece of the fuselage, allowing the public to see the artifact from all sides as well as read about its history. The piece remaining with the Alberta Aviation Museum is particularly interesting because it features a portion of the blue, white and red PWA colours.

“This is part of our local history,” says Lebiedowksi. “PWA was the only major airline to remain at Blatchford Field after the international airport opened in the 1960s. The plane involved in this crash was operated by PWA at the international airport so there was this local connection.

“Overall it is very important to preserve local aviation history because Edmonton was the gateway to the north. This is the place where the first winter flights took place and where the idea of the bush pilot was essentially invented.

“So this story is part of a long standing legacy.”

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Terry Jorden is an Edmonton-based freelance writer and musician.