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Collision Over Moose Jaw

North American Harvard
North American Harvard under maintenance at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, 2018

Thursday, April 8, 1954 was turning out to be a bright, clear, warm day in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan on the Canadian prairies. Perfect flying weather for those who take to the air. A school day for kids, a workday for adults. Nothing unusual really for the city of 28,000 occupants.

Moose Jaw was situated 40 miles west of Regina, along the Trans-Canada Highway, an important rail link to points in Canada via the Canadian Pacific Railway and to Chicago, Illinois via Minneapolis, Minnesota along the Soo Line. Moose Jaw was a wholesale, retail, and industrial center dotted with CPR shops and outbuildings, stockyards, and rail marshalling yards for both important rail companies. Moose Jaw was also home to a vital Royal Canadian Air Force base (RCAF Station Moose Jaw) four miles to the south, a school that trained NATO pilots from around the world. Moose Jaw was a busy city that spring of 1954.

Twenty-two-year-old NATO student pilot from Kirkaldy, Fife, Scotland, Royal Air Force Pilot Officer Thomas Thorrat, took off from the nearby RCAF Station Moose Jaw at 09:57 Central Time that morning in a World War II-vintage Harvard trainer, registered RCAF 3309, and climbed into the glorious blue sky over the city on a north-by-northeast course where he would eventually reach a planned altitude of 9,000 feet. Thorrat, on his ninth solo flight and had accumulated 170 flying hours to date, was now on a cross-country exercise without radio contact or ground navigation. At 6,000 feet over Moose Jaw a few minutes later, he had reached a ground speed of 124 miles per hour and was still climbing.

At this same time, a Trans-Canada Air Lines Canadair C-4 North Star aircraft carrying 31 passengers and four crew members (all from the Vancouver area) was cruising west over the city at 6,000 feet at a ground speed of 184 miles per hour. Designated as TCA Flight Nine with registered markings of CF-TFW, the V-12 Rolls Royce Merlin four-engine C-4 had left Montreal the day before and was now on its way to a stop in Calgary before landing at its destination in Vancouver. Piloted by Captain Ian Bell, it had already picked up passengers and over 1,000 pounds of mail in Toronto and Winnipeg, leaving Winnipeg one hour before at 08:57 Central Time and Regina airspace more recently at 09:52. Everything appeared just fine to Captain Bell and his crew along the flight path known in the business as Airway Green One.

At 10:03, according to concerned eye witnesses on the ground that warm morning, the Harvard and the C-4 appeared to be on converging flight paths, and at the same altitude…

Then…all hell broke loose…

Despite being a clear day, Pilot Officer Thorrat flew his Harvard straight into the starboard side of the North Star near the left engine at a combined airspeed of approximately 300 miles per hour, without either pilot seeing each other or unable to react even if they had spotted the other party. No one would ever know. Everything happened too fast. As a C-4 fuel tank exploded, more than likely killing Thorrat instantly, the Harvard then caromed off the wing and smashed into the fuselage, tearing a huge hole into the C-4, cutting it in half. At this same time, a second wing fuel tank exploded.

The Canadair North Star C-5
The Canadair North Star C-5, the Royal Canadian Air Force version of the the North Star C-4 (Canadian Public Domain)

On the ground, shocked eyewitnesses heard the crash and saw bodies falling out of the North Star. From 6,000 feet below, the shapes appeared like “ants” to some. Within approximately eight seconds, bodies and pieces of both aircraft hit the ground over a three-mile radius. The forward section of the North Star C-4 fuselage landed directly on the home of Betty and Gordon Hume in a densely populated neighborhood, consuming the house in flames, and missing Ross Public School and 360 students by less than 200 yards. Inside the home was Martha Hadwen who had been housecleaning for the Humes that day. When the fire department finally put the fire out three hours later, they found her body and those of 11 North Star passengers and crew. The body of pilot Captain Bell was still strapped to the cockpit seat. Miraculously, Hadwen was the only person who had died on the ground.

Most of the Harvard wreckage and Pilot Officer Thorrat’s body came down separately on a nearly golf course. To the west, the rest of the North Star fuselage landed. The North Star’s Rolls Royce Merlin engines were another matter. One was found opposite the Hume home, one in a field, another on Main Street, and still another near the Trans-Canada Highway. Luckily, most of the debris, including the other North Star bodies, fell on unpopulated areas.

Over the next few hours and days, civic, provincial, and military officials, along with local volunteers worked side-by-side collecting bodies, putting fires out, controlling the on-looking crowds, and seeking out the families of those killed in the crash. The Canadian Post Office Department also got on the job. Most of the mail that had been destined for Vancouver aboard the North Star was burned, scorched, water- or smoke-damaged. But many of the letters--the readable ones--were eventually sent on their way stamped in large caps on the envelopes with such phrases as “SALVAGED FROM T.C.A. WRECK” or “DELAYED.OR.DAMAGED.MOOSE JAW WRECK.”

Three detailed investigations were conducted--by the Royal Canadian Air Force, Trans-Canada Airlines and the Canadian Board of Transport, with no real blame being placed on anyone. One important point did come up: Did the window post on the left side of the North Star passenger aircraft block the Harvard trainer--with its bright yellow paint on the fuselage and wing--from Captain Bell’s view? It was deemed by the investigators as a possibility.

Following the mishap that April 8, 1954, several future recommendations were subsequently enforced, with the two most critical ones being that Airway Green One--the flight path for passenger aircraft--was rerouted several miles to the north of Moose Jaw, while RCAF Station Moose Jaw aerial maneuver routes for pilots were moved to the south of the city.

Despite all this, within the next year, another two near collisions occurred near Moose Jaw between passenger airplanes and Harvard trainers, before things eventually settled down.


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