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THOSE '70s STORIES

Two urgent calls for help Glenn Smith was barely out of his teens when he arrived in Yellowknife in the early ‘70s looking for work and adventure. In short order he was hired to participate in one of the world’s most infamous search and rescue efforts, the downed aircraft of Marten Hartwell. But it was another man’s call for help that continues to haunt him to this day by GLENN SMITH Yellowknife, Fall 1972 THE MINES at that time were not hiring so I found a job building houses in town with a small crew. I had done house construction as a summer job while going to school in Toronto, starting as a labourer and would be classified as a carpenter’s helper by this point. I was always good working with wood, having made my own "Minimax" speedboat from blueprints when I was 14. But it always made a mess of my hands so it was a love-hate type occupation.

We worked on a couple of houses and when the real winter cold came we moved inside and did the finishing work. In those days a finishing carpenter used hand tools and I learned from a real master. He was an young Inuit man and was probably a master carver, such was his touch. His approach to using hand tools was pure Zen: have the proper sharp tools and don’t fight it, let the tool do the work – a lesson that I still carry to this day and reformulate to many applications in my life. When our indoor jobs were finished, I was laid off. The Canadian Forces were asking for volunteers to be spotters on a search plane looking for a downed aircraft lost somewhere in the Barrenlands, the vast muskeg above the treeline leading up to the Arctic. The missing pilot had been preparing to leave Cambridge Bay and deadhead back to YK when he was flagged by an arriving plane and asked if he could take some passengers with him. There were two patients, a pregnant woman and a teenage boy from Taloyoak with appendicitis, and a nurse. They had to get to Yellowknife pronto. The pilot accepted the task and on November 8, 1972, off they

went. His bush plane was the only choice that day, but the problem was he didn’t yet have his night instrument flight qualifications, as I remember. That meant he was only qualified to fly in daylight with good visibility. This was the pre-GPS, magnetic compass era, which was hit-and-miss being so close to the pole, and they relied on radio beacons to guide them. There was some weather and the plane disappeared without a trace. We were told to be at the Yellowknife Inn early in the morning where a bus would shuttle us to the airport. The search plane would be going up every day, weather permitting, for a couple of weeks or till they were found. There were ten or 20 of us as we boarded a Hercules, the workhorse multi-prop cargo carrier of the military. The interior of the plane was basic, a cargo hold with some bench seating along the sides by the windows. Once in the air we got instructions on what to look for as we headed north to the Barrenlands. We flew in the dark until the first rays of dawn broke through. All I can say is that everyone should get to see that vista as the morning sun comes up once in their life. It looked like the Sahara Desert, white and endless beyond comprehension. Some of us spotters could take a turn on the "tailgate,” where they wrapped you in a sleeping bag wearing every stitch of clothing possible, tied you down to the rear cargo hatch and lowered the gate to a horizontal posture. As they flew low over the frozen tundra the tailgater's head was hanging directly over the edge with an unimpeded view of the terrain below. It was very cold and each shift lasted twenty minutes or so and I believe this thinned out the volunteer pool over time. We also took shifts spotting up front in the pilot’s cabin. I’ll never forgot the view from there as we seemed to hover over a very spooked large ungulate on the run in the deep snow, fighting with all his power to run from the noisy creature stalking him from above. I continued to spot on and off over the following weeks and we found nothing. Eventually the search was suspended. A week later a military plane picked up an emergency beacon and they found the crash site on December 7th, so far off course up by Great Bear Lake that our search efforts hadn’t even gotten close. The plane’s emergency beacon was suddenly turned on after 30 days. The pilot and the boy were the only ones who survived the crash after a few days. The pilot had broken both ankles and a knee on impact and was immobile, so the boy had handled all the tasks necessary for survival but died after a few weeks. Everyone in YK knew that the food on board was minimal and that surviving the extreme cold would demand many calories. The unlikely rescue drew international attention and Yellowknife was flooded with media, mostly looking for the gory details about how the pilot survived. Eventually it came out that the May/June 2019

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Profile for EdgeYK

EdgeYK May/June 2019  

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