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Norbert Luken, left, Brian Wilson, and Joe Gans are all with the Canso Crew, a group of men who are planning to restore a 1940s Canso PBY 5 plane. The men were in Inuvik last week moving the plane from where it crash-landed in 2001 to the Mackenzie River. - Brodie Thomas/NNSL photos

Men hope to restore downed Buffalo Airways plane

Brodie Thomas
Northern News Services
Published Monday, April 28, 2008

INUVIK - Traffic on the Dempster Highway was shut down late last Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning so a special vehicle could be transported to the NTCL dock in Inuvik.

The vehicle was a Canadian built plane that made a controlled crash landing outside of Inuvik in 2001. The Canso PBY 5 started its life as an anti-submarine patrol bomber over the Atlantic during the Second World War, hunting German U-boats. After the war the plane was converted for civilian use, mostly as a water-bomber.

Don Wieben of Fairview, Alta., and five other men who call themselves the Canso Crew spent several months planning and a week on the ground to bring the plane back to the highway. It will eventually be transported to Alberta.

"If possible, we're going to restore it and take it around to air shows. We also plan to make at least one epic journey with the plane," said Wieben.

The plane belonged to Buffalo Airways when it crash-landed on a training flight outside of Inuvik. The pilot and co-pilot escaped before the plane sunk to the bottom of a lake. In 2002, workers from Buffalo Air brought the plane to the surface and salvaged the engines, leaving the rest of the plane on the shore.

"Buffalo" Joe McBryan tried to donate the body of the plane to the National Aviation Museum. But the museum did not have the money or resources to rescue the plane from its temporary Arctic grave.

That is where Wieben and the Canso Crew stepped in. McBryan sold the plane to Wieben. He and his crew have already restored a Beechcraft model 18 plane to working condition. On that project they called themselves the Beech Boys. After they got it running they flew the plane up to Ward Hunt Island, located about 400 kilometres from the North Pole.

Getting the Canso to the highway was no easy task. It was 52 kilometres inland from the road. Wieben and the crew built special skids to help them drag the plane out. They used a "low-footprint" caterpillar vehicle that was on loan from a seismic company back in Alberta.

Wieben said the crew has received lots of help from companies and individuals in Inuvik. The Gwich'in Tribal Council gave them permission to retrieve the plane from their land.

"We never could have done this without the people of Inuvik helping us," he said.

Local resident Albert Frost took the crew under his wing when he found out what they were planning.

"Wieben thought we could just camp out inside the plane," said Norbert Luken, another member of the Canso Crew. "Thank goodness Albert brought us out a canvas tent with a stove and made sure we were OK," he said.

Frost, who is very familiar with the land, helped the crew chart a course out to the highway that would have minimal impact on the environment.

"We were going to bring it up a cutline, but we would've had to take the wings off. Albert found us a trail. We had to cut down very few trees to get the plane to the highway," said Wieben.

Tom Zubko, owner of New North Networks, offered the men use of a satellite phone while they were on the land.

"They needed some communication out there for safety so we made sure they were covered," he said.

Zubko has a background in aviation and is still a recreational pilot, so the crew's restoration plans caught his attention. Besides lending them a satellite phone, he also provided moral support for the crew and put them in contact with businesses and people who could offer support.

The plane is definitely from an era when things were built to last. Despite spending a year underwater and another five years exposed to the elements, the body is in excellent condition. Once brought to the highway, crewman Joe Gans fired up an air compressor and re-inflated the tires as if the plane had just been taken out of storage.

NTCL has offered to barge the Canso south free of charge. If the plane cannot be restored, Wieben said it will go on static display, probably in Edmonton.