There is no airport in Cobourg and there never has been - yet on Dec 20, 1951 a passenger plane landed in Cobourg. Quite a story. First a summary then a first hand account of the event.
On December 17, a chartered flight of a twin-engined C-46E Curtis Commando took off from Burbank, CA headed for Newark NJ via Chicago. On board were 44 passengers and 3 crew - Captain Bruce Melson, co-pilot Ed O’Leary and stewardess Sandy Daine. It was already late, it had been scheduled for a day earlier.
The flight operator was Major Air-coach Inc. based in Burbank.
It experienced problems from the start and landed in the California Desert at Palmdale to fix its heating system. Passengers and crew huddled in the plane overnight with no heat, light or food. Despite this, for the last 2 hours of flight there was no heat.
They arrived in Chicago with more troubles due to icing and bad weather and must have stayed there a day because they finally took off in the evening of December 19.
Near Toledo, Ohio, the plane’s “radio mast” was damaged, torn off or iced over (multiple stories!) so that radio contact was no longer possible. Because of this, the plane was lost for 6 hours with the last contact to Toledo on Dec 20 at 2:01am. At some point, the plane turned north although the pilots did not know this.
Most of the time, they could not see due to heavy cloud although they knew from the altimeter that they were losing height. At one point they saw the water and waves of Lake Ontario but thought they were looking at the Atlantic Ocean.
Problems were compounded by wings getting iced and one engine which failed. Then fuel was running low but they hoped to see land shortly. They did eventually see land at around 7:40am but did not know they were looking at the Cobourg area.
One engine failed, then the second one stopped just before landing at 7:45am, Dec 20, 1951.
The plane landed with no wheels down on thick snow that had fallen overnight on Charley Wilson’s farm. This occupied the south west corner of Highway 2 and Roger’s Road – where the current Canadian Tire store is located.
The Wilsons and their neighbours sheltered the passengers and crew and warmed them up before they were taken to the RCAF Hospital in Trenton. There they were given a bed for the night and provided with meals before proceeding by Bus to Newark. Passengers and the crew had many kind words to say about the hospitality of the people of Cobourg.
Thanks to George Parker for more accuracy on the plane model and a pointer to the photo.
Story as told by Larry Wilson
A young boy at the time the plane landed on his parents' farm.
DECEMBER 20, 1951 to JANUARY 10, 1952
By Larry Wilson
Wednesday, December 20, 1951 started out as a normal day for our family. Father (Charley Wilson - Ed) and the hired man had risen earlier to do the morning milking.
Mother had now risen to prepare breakfast and to get her darling sons out of bed for school. As my father was leaving with a load of milk for the local dairy in Cobourg, I thought the noise was that of the milk cans sliding around in the back of the 1950 Studebaker 1/2 ton. It was cold enough outside that we had no vision through our bedroom window (because of frost) to see what was taking place.
With that, our hired man (Harold Drinkwater - Ed.) ran into the house to inform mother that a plane had landed in the field below the barn. Mother took one look out the back door, informed him to get the people into the house and then ran to my bedroom to get me moving. Her remarks went something like "there is a plane in our field and there must be one hundred people coming up to the barn". Now mother was not one to tell stretched stories, but that morning I figured she was losing it.
I finished dressing and headed for the back door.
It looked like one of those pictures you would see in a magazine of the gold rush days. There was a line of people snaking across the field towards the barn.
It had snowed that night, possibly one or two feet and had also drifted. As a matter of fact, it was snowing like the devil at that time.
Father arrived at the dairy and was unloading his milk cans when our neighbour Bob Staples pulled in behind him. Bob informed father that a large plane had just landed on our farm. Now Bob was one who loved to lead you on and father figured he was having his leg pulled again. After washing his milk cans, possibly telling a joke or two, he was off for home to get his breakfast and to do the daily farm chores. What a surprise he was in for, he never did get his breakfast that day.
I pulled on my coat and boots and proceeded out the back door. As I landed on the back landing, a voice behind me said "and where are you going young man". I turned around to see one of the tallest R.C.M.P. officers I had ever seen. He directed me to bring the people to the house, as he wished to speak with them. He had been traveling along Highway #2, following the plane (RCMP had been notified by Air Traffic who had seen a mystery plane on radar - Ed). When it had landed, he drove into our drive, getting his cruiser stuck in the snow. Boy would dad be some ticked off, as he had just gone out the drive making a trail.
I ran to the barn, opening the gates so that the people could pass through to the house. I continued on towards the plane to see if any help was needed.
I came upon a lady who was walking in a pair of opened toed, high heeled shoes. Her feet were now swollen enough that the shoes would not stay on, so Mr. Macho picked her up and carried her to the house.
By this time most of the passengers had made their way into the house. They were in every room of the house, all forty-four of them. It should be noted, that for the past two hours there was no heat on the plane, so they were glad of some warmth.
Mother loaded the old wood cook stove with more wood and handed out wool work socks to warm their feet. I should note, that several months later, one of the passengers sent mother several new pairs of wool socks to replace the ones that she had used.
I was directed to the basement, to throw more coal on the furnace. By this time father had arrived home and took over. You had to know my father, his taking over would be to visit with our new guests and make sure that mother had looked after everyone’s needs. (I do have a picture of father handing out coffee cups, so our guests could have a nice hot cup of tea - bottom left).
By now our neighbours were starting to arrive with loaves of bread, the makings for sandwiches, fruit cakes, cookies and anything else pulled from the freezer that could be used to feed this hungry bunch. Those were the good old days when neighbours jumped in to help and then thought about what they had done afterwards.
What an exciting time. All these new guests, who were so happy to be safe and alive. Many, this being their first visit to Canada. Our guests were made up of families with children, single people and service men. One service man was a day late for his wedding and when he phoned his bride to be, she informed him that she would wait another day, but no longer. By ten o'clock some of the service men were getting bored, so, I figured that I could solve that problem and get myself out of some work. I gathered them together and we headed for the barn. I put some at cleaning out the cows, some at feeding, and the rest I took to slop the pigs and feed the chickens. I do believe they enjoyed this change in routine, as years later, one of the service men looked me up, and in our visit he mentioned about feeding the animals.
Along about noon, a bus arrived to take our new friends away. They would be taken to the air base at Trenton for the night before going back to the US. The bus was owned and driven by none other than our very good friend Keith Burley. Keith always had a smile, but that day it was bigger than usual. Keith told us afterwards, that when he got to the US Border, he was passed through without inspection and that the border inspectors wished everyone a Merry Christmas.
I’ll go back a bit in my story and tell you about the plane etc.. The plane was a C46 Curtis Commando troop plane, now owned by the "99ers" from Burbank, California and used as a charter passenger craft. There were forty-four passengers and a crew of three. Of the forty-four, four were children. They were to leave from Burbank and travel to Newark, N.J..
The plane was plagued with problems from the start. They were a day late leaving Burbank and after a short flight landed in the desert. Later that night, they then left for Chicago. As they continued on from Chicago to Newark, the radio antennas started to ice up and radio contact was lost. As they could not contact anyone to get bearings, the plane strayed to the north.
As they passed Toronto, Malton Airport had them on radar, but could not make any radio contact. It was at this time that the R.C.M.P. were called about this unidentified craft. The craft continued along the north shore of Lake Ontario. Oshawa Airport got them on the radar, but no radio contact. Trenton Air Station was notified. They were put on alert, loading jets with ammunition for the meeting with this mystery craft.
As this mystery craft passed Port Hope, they were low enough to see the waves of Lake Ontario. The left engine ran out of fuel, the pilot feathered the prop, he feared for the worst, they had gone too far and were over the Atlantic Ocean.
As they passed Bob Carr's Marsh, he spotted a jut of land on his left. With that the right engine ran out of fuel. He slowly turned the craft to the left coming over the Cobourg Dye Works, over the County Home, continued turning west.
When he saw a flat field on our farm, he said, that’s where it will take place. He continued over the Burnham's farm, swinging over the Johns' farm and turning east, making his approach to land. The pilot brought the plane in so low that he only cleared the fence posts before settling into the new fallen snow.
As he touched down, he released the landing gear, allowing the tail wheel to come down and act like a rudder on a boat. The pilot Mr. Bruce Smelser (right) told me afterwards, that his next big concern was a large tree at the east side of our farm, which they were coming straight toward. This tree was located on the south end of what is now Rogers Road. They were lucky that the snow was dry enough to act like a brake and the plane stopped within several hundred feet of touching down. It should be noted, that the landing was so smooth, that a cup of coffee sitting on the pilot's console was not spilled, nor were the sleeping babies wakened
The passengers did not know the plane had stopped moving until the stewardess opened the plane door. Remember, in those days planes did not have escape chutes, you jumped from the plane to the ground, a distance of possibly five to six feet.
A TCA flight on its way from Montreal to Toronto, heard the air news and diverted his flight to see what had taken place. As they passed over Cobourg, he circled his craft so that his passengers could see the downed craft. At this point the downed passengers were just getting off the plane and waved to the TCA Flight.
It was only a few days before mechanics from the US arrived to work on the plane, but due to Canadian Regulations, they could not work on the craft. The work had to be done by Canadian mechanics, so a Toronto firm, Sanderson Aircraft, were hired to do the work.
The first thing was to get the craft up on it's wheels. This was done with the help of Ron Gagne and Fred Ito. Ron had a D7 Cat dozer and Fred had an old backhoe mounted on an army truck and old Ford dump truck, which had to be towed each morning to start. The work began by digging ramps under the plane, which were then lined with planks to make a roadway to pull the plane up. The landing gear was pumped down by hand, the plane was jacked a small amount to clear the ground and to allow the wheels to come into the locked position. The D7 was then hooked onto the front of the plane and it was slowly pulled up the ramps to a level area where work could continue. With Fred’s backhoe, the old propellers were removed and new ones installed. The batteries were recharged, fuel put in the tanks and the engines started. Voila - the props ran true and smooth, well, as true and smooth as those engines ran.
All the time that Fred was putting on the props, Ron was busy levelling out a 2,500 ft. air strip, in preparation for the upcoming take off. A Mr. Charles Rector was the person hired to fly this craft out. Assisting him would be his mechanic, Mr. Gordon McBride, both from North Hollywood, Calif.. They arrived the day before the big event was to take place and traveled the air strip until every bump and wave was clear in their minds. Then the big day arrived, January 10, 1952. Nylon sheeting was soaked in glue and pasted to the damaged under belly, the engines were then started and revved up and down, up and down, to make sure they responded properly.
Finally, Charles moved the big craft out onto the makeshift runway. Had Ron done his job? In a few minutes we would know.
The runway was lined with news cameras from all over Canada and the US. Our neighbours, who had been so helpful were also there, but everyone else was kept back at the highway. Highway # 2 being the only route from Toronto to Montreal carried a lot of traffic (for those days). The OPP stopped all the traffic.
The Ontario Hydro and Bell Telephone crews were on hand in case the wires should be hit.
Charles taxied the big craft down the runway to its takeoff starting point. It should be noted that there was one spot on the air strip that was a raised ridge, created by the starting furrows when father had plowed the field the year before. As the plane came down the air strip, it must lift clear before this ridge and not touch the ridge after it cleared or the drag would be enough to delay the liftoff, causing the plane to hit the utility wires.
The plane was lined up in its starting position, blocks were put in front of the wheels, the brakes applied to their fullest and the engines were revved up to their top R.P.M.s. The plane started to shake, rattle and roll, the brakes were released, it bounded over the blocks and started down the runway. Faster and faster it moved until light could be seen under the tires, BUT NO, the tires touched that ill fated ridge of father's plowing days, but no need to worry, Charles was at the wheel. The craft slowly climbed, narrowly missing the utility wires and off it moved into the blue skies. It was 2:30pm, a roar was heard from the crowd as he circled the craft back over its previous path, over the Burnham and Johns farms, turning east to travel over its previous resting place and on to Trenton for the night. (All other airports were closed due to bad weather).
The next morning they left Trenton to fly to Malton, where they would clear customs and continue back to Burbank via Chicago.
I should go back a bit, to fill you in about Ron and Fred. Ron went on to form Beaverdale Construction. Fred's company, Fred Ito Construct went on to be known as Cobourg Construction. My hat is off to both of these gentlemen, who froze their buns off, working in the open with no protection. The day the plane took off, the temperature was -6 degrees (old temperature). Ron wore a fedora all the time and Fred wore a winter hat with the flaps pulled down. I have several pictures of them working or standing by the plane, but best of all is the old scrap book that my mother made.
Photos on this page reproduced courtesy of the scrap book.
Author Larry Wilson is the son of the Wilson family who owned the farm where the plane landed.
The pilot Bruce Smelser was the uncle of Steven Smelser. Steven reports that Bruce called Steven's grandmother telling her he and all aboard were just fine, and that they should listen to the Arthur Godfrey radio program. And so they did.
Uncle Bruce La Mar Smelser passed away in May of 1986.
At right is a passport photo of Uncle Bruce taken in 1958.
Steven offers his many thanks to Larry Wilson for telling the story.
Email from Sherri Lawrence
I truly enjoyed the article of the plane landing in Cobourg 1951. My husband was one of the service men on that flight and went back there years later. He did speak with Larry Wilson at that time to thank him and his family for the wonderful hospitality shown to them on that day.
My husband just turned 83, has two children and five grandchildren. I think the captain did a remarkable job of landing that plane...just like "Scully" did on the emergency landing on the Hudson River, in New York a few years ago!
It would be interesting to see how many people are still alive today from the Cobourg crash!
Sherri Lawrence - wife of Gerald Lawrence
P.S. I do believe that is my husband in the picture ... carrying the suitcase.