The Last Flight of Viscount CF-THS Air Canada 637

Late August 1983 in Winnipeg proved hot and muggy. Stretched out on a lawn chair in my back yard, I studied condensation droplets dribbling down the side of the tankard holding my first ice-cold beer of the day. The phone rang. It was my good friend, Gerry Norberg.

“Jim,” he said, “have you still got a Viscount endorsement on your licence?”

“Yes, I do, Gerry. What’s up?” I replied.

Gerry breathlessly explained: “The Western Canada Aviation Museum [now the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada –ed.] now owns the former Trans Canada Air Lines hangar at Winnipeg and will use it for the home of their historic aircraft. Their Vickers Viscount, the largest aircraft in the collection, is stored in a former RCAF hangar up at Gimli.”

Vickers Viscount
The Vickers Viscount was a pioneering airliner in western Canada.

He continued catching his breath. “The plane was flown up there from Montreal last year but now two of the four engines are time expired and, to make it airworthy for a flight to Winnipeg, they need to swap two engines with Beaver Industries.”

“And?” I interrupted.

“They need someone to fly it to Winnipeg,” he blurted out and added, “They don’t have the money to pay anybody.”

“Hmmm,” I mumbled, stalling while I mulled over the possible consequences of the oblique request.

Back in the days when cars had fins, an aircraft endorsement was not required to act as co-pilot and restrictions like recency and currency did not exist yet so I countered to Gerry, “How about coming along for the ride?”

Without hesitation, he answered, “Sure.”

“That settles it then. Let’s do, it but when?” I enquired.

“Oh, but by the way,” he hesitated before adding, “they had to take the rudder off to get it into the hangar so as soon as they finish changing the engines and put the tail back on… probably three weeks.”

Gerry and I drove up to Gimli to have a look. Seeing the aircraft, my heart sank. The forlorn scene looked hopeless. Sundry bits of airplane scattered over the hangar floor, two of the four engines missing and the silly looking Viscount with half its tail feathers missing. I had second thoughts.

Gimli Airport
Run the engines to full power, but don’t rotate – because you have no rudder.

We would have to test run the engines at full power so we would need to blast down the runway to takeoff speed, check the power, especially the two swapped ones, then stop before we rattled off the end. Two problems with that: if there was a wind, it had to be right down the runway for without a rudder we would have insufficient directional control and, after years of sitting, how reliable were the brakes?

Two weeks later, we returned to find all the bits back in their proper places, except the tail. There is nothing worse for a pilot than going without tail. However, the weather and maintenance gods smiled and the test run proved satisfactory at full power with no overheats. What a weird feeling rolling down a runway well beyond rotation speed fighting a pilot’s natural instinct to pull back on the control column and become airborne.

With the tail at last in place, the day of the big event, September 17, 1983, dawned bright and clear with a strong south wind that blew straight down the departure and arrival runways, but trouble lay ahead. Gerry arrived at my door at 10 am to drive up to Gimli. My Dad was lurking around the house, as he liked to do on Saturday mornings to hang out with our four kids. We had a problem. If we drove to Gimli in my car, we’d have to leave it there and drive back up to get it after the flight.

My wife, Joyce, had things to do that day and said, “Don’t look at me. I don’t want any part of that airplane nonsense.”

Dad chirped in, “I’ll drive you up, drop you guys off and be back in Winnipeg in time to photograph your grand entrance.”

Gerry and I exchanged worried glances. We both knew driving to Gimli with Dad in his eighties was likely to be the riskiest part of the adventure. We did our best to appear grateful as we reluctantly accepted his offer. I noticed all four kids declined the outing.

The trip up was uneventful. Not one motorist noticed Dad had left a turn signal on for the entire journey or if they did, had suppressed the urge to blow their horns, give Dad the finger or wave their fists as they passed us at our sedate 45 mph speed.

Broken rib x-ray
A broken rib – a small price to pay for such a “historic” mission.

We arrived early deciding to lunch at a popular café near Gimli’s waterfront. I can’t remember what Gerry or I ordered but I had good reason to remember that Dad ordered a salmon sandwich. He took the first bite and began to choke. He stood up. I stood up. Gerry sat immobilized. I felt every eye in the crowded place upon us. I quickly reached over Dad’s head from behind, clasped my hands together balled them into a fist and gave a tug. Nothing happened. Dad was still gasping for breath trying vainly to speak. Now desperate, I gave my mightiest possible heave. Out popped first the offending salmon bone then his dentures. Neither misguided missile struck other diners. Dad reached down, picked up his teeth, sat back down and calmly resumed eating his sandwich while Gerry and I sat, leaving our plates untouched, and tried to look as if nothing had happened.

On the ride to the hangar, Dad complained of a pain in his side but bravely said, “I’ll be okay I think you’ve only broken my rib. Don’t worry I’ll meet you in Winnipeg.”

Just before climbing aboard, the museum’s maintenance chief warned, “Look, boys. I’d rather you didn’t bring the gear up after takeoff. I’m not one hundred percent sure they will come down again for the landing at Winnipeg,” he grumbled. “I think the down locks are a bit dodgy.”

Disappointed, I graciously agreed to his request. I could not risk the hundreds of volunteer hours he and the museum team had done to restore this aircraft to flying condition for the sake of my ego to do a high speed, victory fly past on arrival at Winnipeg. The homecoming epitaph of THS would have to be like the dedicated service the venerable Vickers Viscounts had performed for Air Canada, its flight crews and mechanics over its active lifetime… steadfast, reliable, and unpretentious.

Vickers Viscount cockpit
Nothing modern or automated about the Viscount cockpit, but it does bring back memories.

I climbed into the left seat and with difficulty overcame a sense of nostalgia for the five years I had spent flying this airplane and its sister ships west across the Canadian prairies and Rocky Mountains to the coast and east paralleling the Laurentian Shield spanning Ontario and Quebec. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these were the best years of my flying career. There was an eerie, alien strangeness in the cockpit layout that I had not anticipated. As Gerry clambered into the right seat and began reciting the liturgy of the checklists, the old black magic came back and by the time we taxied out to the runway I was home again at last.

The takeoff was nothing like I remembered, nor were the control responses. Thirteen years of hydraulically-augmented controls and positive takeoff rotations on the DC-9 and 727 left me unprepared for the seemingly strange lift off. We had a strong wind right on the nose; that and the resulting low ground speed gave the sensation of rising horizontally similar to an elevator so unlike the pitched up, nose high attitude of a jet. In the climb and cruise, there was not much attitude difference. My one regret was that the museum, with its limited financial resources, meant I dare not, with a clear conscience, waste their valuable fuel to allow Gerry much time at the controls on the 40-minute flight. A couple of short turns either way and that was it. We made a staid low pass over the meager welcoming crowd… the speed governed by the gear extended limits. The approach speeds and landing attitude were not unlike those of a jet and we landed smoothly.

We taxied in, I set the brakes, reached over and pulled all four HP cocks to “fuel off.” There is something about the shutting down of engines after a flight. It has a death-like finality about it like putting an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence. As the ear-splitting whistle of the Dart engines winding down echoed off the surrounding buildings into the inevitable deafening silence that follows the cacophony of flight, nothing stirred in the empty aircraft. These last few precious moments of complete silence before the clanging and clashing of opening doors and hatches by interloping groundlings were a time for reflection.

True to his word, Dad had made it back in time to photograph our sedate wheels down fly-by. A professional RCAF photographer during WWII, the out-of-focus photo injured Dad’s pride.

He later said, “You know, Jimmie, that picture would not be blurred if you hadn’t broken my rib.”

After our rather anti-climactic arrival, Gerry and I stood around with our hands in our pockets trying to stay out of trouble. One of the museum people who was in charge of towing THS into its new hangar home mentioned that they were going to have to suck the remaining JP-4 fuel from the tanks; otherwise it would be a fire hazard.

I guess I had been too frugal with the museum’s fuel not only robbing Gerry of some pole time but also creating a further problem.

I don’t remember who the bright spark was that said, “Hey, why don’t we start up THS and burn off the fuel instead by running the engines?”

Some other genius piped in with, “Yeah, let’s taxi the thing around the field and… hey, let’s take everyone who wants to go… for a ride.”

It was all right for them but it was going to fall on my not-overly broad shoulders to execute the Uber ride, after all, I was the only one around qualified to do it. First, the ferry permit only stipulated one nonstop flight from Gimli to Winnipeg without passengers. Second taxiing on the ground with passengers was not prohibited. Third, it would depend on whether Air Traffic Control in the tower would allow it and if airport emergency services would be available. In today’s litigious environment, I would never have dreamed of doing it, but back then I was starting to get a headache from over-thinking all the possible negative outcomes from unexpected circumstances so I said, “Sure. Why not?”

The duty supervisor from the tower must have been on his lunch break. In 1983, it couldn’t possibly have been a her. I guess whoever was in charge up there must have been as gaily cavalier as we were because they gave us clearance with free range over of the entire airport. My sidekick later said I was taxiing pretty fast but I can’t imagine myself engaging in such risky behaviour.

I can’t speak for Gerry, but I had a sense of intense sadness that this aircraft would never again share with its crews the ecstasy of a minuet with the gods of flight. Instead, its destiny was to be poked, prodded and groped by the sweaty hands of curious strangers. My one hope was for THS to be the queen of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada’s historic fleet and as such be cared for with the diligence befitting such an honour.

Viscount on display
The proud bird, finally on display after a unique final flight.

Aviation historians continue to understate the contributions made by the Viscount in particular to the economy of Winnipeg’s aviation industry and to Canada’s transportation system. While it is true that the many smaller bush planes did much to open the north, it fell to the turbine-powered Vickers Viscount to gift multitudes of westerners’ fast, efficient, comfortable and above all, safe travel throughout the west and beyond.

Indeed the Viscount connected many small cities within Canadian regions and in turn linked those regions to the larger centres, Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal and to the USA. There is evidence that the Viscount significantly altered the travel patterns of businessmen and everyday Canadians. The Viscount’s hippedy-hop route structure improved intercity commerce and connected economically-separated families more than any other aircraft in the dramatic shift from piston-driven power sources for aircraft to turbines.

I am gratefully proud to have my name as the last entry in the logbook of CF-THS and to have had Gerry Norberg as my co-pilot.

Years later as Dad walked me to the elevator in the former Winnipeg Veterans Hospital, Deer Lodge, now a senior’s residence, where I was visiting him from our home in Niagara, he suddenly grabbed my elbow and said, “Jimmie, remember the time you broke my rib?”

“Yes, Dad, I remember” I replied and continued, “I think you, me and Gerry had a fun day. I’m really sorry I broke your rib.”

“It’s okay, Jimmie. It wasn’t really broken anyway… only cracked.”

We hugged, said good-bye and that was the last time I saw him.

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12 Comments

  • A great story, and well-told. Airline pilots may be considered bus drivers these days, but no one ever got excited about riding a bus on its last run.

  • Well told. I kept waiting for the fire, or the blown tire, or the frozen-up hydraulics… whew, glad you made it.

  • Well, this story showed up again in the review section of The Journal. So not having read it before I dove in. The last line made my eyes moisten. Sharing flight with anyone is a privilege. Sharing it with your dad is an honor few experience. Having your father enjoy that day with you as he supported your roll was a memory worth savoring. Ignoring his slow travel speed, continuous turn signal, and your cracking of his rib was testimony to your acceptance of his frailty and your love for him. I have no doubt that while he was witness to this eventful day he was in every way very very proud of his son.

  • ORIGINALLY, I WAS AT THE FACTORY WATCHING THEM BEING BUILT, AS AN OBSERVER. THEY ARE A GR4AND, OLD, PLANE.

  • Great story! My Dad started his career at TCA as well and earned his 4th stripe on one in YVR with A/C. He had some fond memories about charters into 108 mile. I have a small desk top model of the viscount along with his other A/C memories.

  • Thank you for a beautifully written and memorable story.
    Continental Airlines operated Viscounts DEN to STL in 1961-1962 on flights I made in my engineering college days. What a contrast to DC3, DC 6 and DC 7 flights. I think Trans Canada replaced their DC3s with Viscounts on the YYZ-SEA and YYZ-YVR flights in that period – my memory is weak.

  • Back, maybe 50 some years ago, I was in charge of selling Florida land for a Cleveland, Ohio real estate company. The owner had a Vickers Viscount, not for taking customers to FL but ferrying folks to Las Vegas… and pouring them in for the return. It was a lovely ship, and I always thought it outclassed the clientele.

  • My first flight ever was on on a TCA Viscount. I remember those big picture windows, and how the prop blades would silently start spinning before the engine sound reached the cabin. We lived 5 miles from the London, Ontario airport on an approach path, so that sound of the Dart engines approaching was fixed in my memory. The first time I played the new Beatles song “ Back in the USSR” I thought it was the evening flight from Toronto!

  • I clearly recall a 1957 flight from Minneapolis to New York City via Pittsburgh on a Capital Airlines Viscount. The difference from Northwest’s DC-6s and Stratocruisers was mind-blowing – no stopping at the end of the taxiway to run up the engines, instant acceleration, huge windows. I’ll admit to being nostalgic about the Lockheed Electra as well.

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