NOTE: After 8+ years and 1,524 published posts, This Day in Aviation is going to try something new today. TDiA was contacted by a regular reader with a suggestion for a new post. He was so knowledgeable about the incident, that rather than reinvent the wheel, I asked him to write the following article. I hope that you find it as interesting as I did. Please welcome our first guest author, Captain Sean M. Cross, United States Coast Guard (Retired), and now the President and COO of Helinet Aviation Services, Van Nuys, California. —Bryan
18 September 1946: In the summer of 1946, SABENA (Societé Anonyme Belge d’Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne, the national airline of Belgium) began twice-weekly flights from Brussels, Belgium, to New York City, with refueling stops at Shannon, Ireland, and Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. The airline operated brand-new four-engine Douglas DC-4 Skymasters on the route.
A little after 8:00 p.m., Tuesday, 17 September, OO-CBG departed Shannon for the overnight flight to Gander. The Douglas Skymaster was under the command Captain Jean Ester, a Belgian who had flown with the Royal Air Force during World War II. The co-pilot was Albert Drossaert; with Leopold Verstraeten, navigator; Paul Fassbender, flight engineer; and radio operator Jean Dutoict. There were two flight attendants , Jeanne Bruylant and Jean Rookx, and 37 passengers.
OO-CBG was due at Gander at 0720, Wednesday morning. At 0737, the flight reported by radio, estimating that it was 16 minutes out.
SABENA OO-CBG never arrived.
The Skymaster crashed during harsh weather 24 miles (39 kilometers) southwest of Gander. An inbound Transcontinental and Western Airlines (TWA) DC-4 located the crash site and remained overhead until a United States Coast Guard Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina flying boat, serial number 48314 (c/n 1506) from Air Detachment Argentia, arrived over the scene and confirmed that the wreckage was that of the missing SABENA airliner and that survivors were seen.
The crash site was heavily wooded and the ground proved to be a very large bog. As the aircraft could not land, emergency aid supplies were dropped by parachute and plans were formulated to rescue the survivors.
A PBY-5A with a U.S. Army medical team from Fort McAndrew, Argentia, under the command of Captain Samuel Preston Martin III.M.D., U.S. Army, landed on Dead Wolf Pond, a lake about one and a half miles (2.4 kilometers) long, located five miles (8 kilometers) from the crash site.
With the assistance of experienced woodsman from Gander, Dr. Martin and his medical team began the hazardous trip down a river known as Dead Wolf Brook from the lake to an area near the crash site. Martin’s team then made their way by foot through the boggy area to the DC-4 and the survivors.
Dr. Martin determined that many of the severely injured would not survive the rugged overland trip upriver and that some other way had to be found to extract the survivors and rescuers.
The U.S. Coast Guard decided to use helicopters to carry out the survivors. The nearest were located at the Coast Guard Air Stations, Brooklyn, New York, and Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in the United States. In fact, these were the only helicopters operating in the Coast Guard at the time.
Helicopters were just out of their infancy in 1946, moving into the adolescent stage—Igor Sikorsky had made the first helicopter flight just six years earlier. [See TDiA, 14 September 1939] However, the U.S. Coast Guard had pioneered helicopter development alongside Sikorsky as the military service responsible for the testing and evaluation of helicopters during the latter years of World War II. This would be their first large scale rescue which would prove the helicopter’s amazing capabilities.
On 20 September 1946, two days after the airliner crashed, orders were received from the East Area Rescue Officer, Captain Richard L. Burke, U.S. Coast Guard, to prepare a Sikorsky R-4/HNS-1 helicopter for immediate shipment to Gander to take part in the rescue of survivors of a crashed Belgian airliner. Instructions were given by telephone to Lieutenant Alvin Nightingale Fisher, USCG, at Elizabeth City to begin disassembly of an HNS-1 for transport aboard a C-54 Skymaster (the military version of the Douglas DC-4). No details were available on the orders for Air Station Brooklyn, New York.
An Army Air Forces C-54 from Westover Field, near Springfield, Massachusetts, arrived at Elizabeth City at 9:25 p.m., local time, on the 20th. The disassembled fabric-covered HNS-1, serial number 39051, and its crew were loaded aboard and the transport departed at 11:25 p.m. for the 1,215 nautical mile (1,298 statute miles/2,250 kilometers) journey, landing at Gander at 8:55 a.m., the next morning. The helicopter was unloaded and assembly began at once.
While the helicopter was being reassembled, the pilots were taken to the scene of the crash by a PBY from Argentia, and plans were laid for flying the survivors out by helicopter. It was decided to drop lumber at the clearing nearest the crash for the purpose of constructing a small landing platform as the muskeg would not support the weight of the helicopter. A second platform was built on the edge of the lake approximately 7 miles (11 kilometers) from the clearing so that survivors could be transferred at this point to PBYs and flown to Gander.
While the Elizabeth City Sikorsky HNS-1 was being prepared for flight, another helicopter, the metal-clad Sikorsky R-6/HOS-1, serial number 23470, a newer and more powerful machine, was also on the scene being readied. The HOS-1 from Air Station Brooklyn arrived at Gander some twenty minutes before the Elizabeth City machine and was reassembled and ready for flight before the HNS-1.
Chief Aviation Machinist’s Mates Oliver F. Berry, Leo Brzycki, and AAM1 Merwin Westerberg were the primary mechanics in charge of the disassembly and reassembly of the HNS-1, while Chief Aviation Machinist’s Mate Vanelli was the primary mechanic for the HOS-1. (Other personnel could not be identified.)
Taking the helicopters apart in order to airlift them on transport aircraft, then putting them back together on arrival at Gander was critical to the operation. After reassembly of the Elizabeth City and during the run-up prior to its test flight, someone approached too close to the turning rotors and the test pilot did an emergency shut down. This caused a pin to shear and it was dark before the trouble could be remedied.
The Brooklyn HOS-1 managed to evacuate 8 people before dark on the 21st, all of whom had to be carried by stretcher due to the severity of their injuries.
The helicopters and PBY-5As made numerous trips before all eighteen survivors were evacuated to Gander Airport. In addition, the helicopters withdrew the fourteen members of the Army’s ground rescue team, and several others. The following day, after all survivors had been flown out, the investigators and airline officials were flown in by helicopter. In all, the helicopters made forty flights into the clearing. Landings, both at the clearing and at the lake, were made on the wooden platforms, thus permitting maximum performance of the helicopters.
The U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pilots were Commander Frank Anderson, Lieutenant Commander Stewart Graham, Lieutenant Walter Bolton and Lieutenant August Kleisch. Three of these four officers had begun their Coast Guard careers as enlisted men.
The aircrews received the U.S. Air Medal, while the government of Belgium presented the Chevalier (Knight) of the Order of Leopold to all for the rescue.
Commander Stewart Ross (“Stew”) Graham, United States Coast Guard. (25 September 1917–13 August 2016) Commander Graham was designated Coast Guard Aviator No. 114 in 1942, and then Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot No. 2 in 1943. He was the leading pilot in pioneering Anti-Submarine Warfare tactics, and trained U.S. Navy pilots to conduct these critical missions. Commander Graham was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals. He was appointed Chevalier de l’Ordre de Léopold (Knight) by tPrince Charles, Regent of Belgium, for helicopter rescues.
Lieutenant Commander August (“Gus”) Kleisch, United States Coast Guard. (2 October 1908–26 October 2003) Lieutenant Commander Kleisch was designated as an Enlisted Aviation Pilot in 1935, and after commissioning in 1942, Coast Guard Aviator No. 109. In 1943, at Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn (located at Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, New York, he qualified as Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot No. 5. In 1945, “Gus” Kleisch pioneered the first use of a training helicopter to rescue seven crewmembers of a Canadian PBY flying boat which had been forced down in a remote area of Labrador. He also delivered two medical officers to the scene. For his heroism and innovation, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the U.S. Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force Cross by Prime Minister of Canada. He was appointed Chevalier de l’Ordre de Léopold (Knight) by Prince Charles, Regent of Belgium, for the rescue of the SABENA survivors. Lieutenant Commander Kleisch served in the United States Coast Guard from 1927 until he retired in 1959.
Chief Machinist’s Mate Oliver Fuller Berry, United States Coast Guard. (8 March 1908–13 September 1991) ADC Berry was one of the world’s first helicopter maintenance specialists. A distinguished expert mechanic on original Coast Guard aircraft, he was a lead instructor at the very first United States military helicopter training unit. He contributed significantly to the 1946 SABENA crash rescue operation. Of exemplary character, extraordinary technical knowledge, exceptional planning talent, and superior leadership traits, his untiring quest for excellence established the ensuing high standards characterizing Coast Guard aviation maintenance. The Chief Oliver F. Berry Aviation Maintenance Award was established in Chief Berry’s honor, and he is the namesake of the Sentinel-class cutter USCGC Oliver Berry (WPC 1124).