The Crash of KB914
"The Crash of KB914," excerpted from the CAHS Journal (Winter 2010)
Lancaster KB914 rolled off Victory Aircraft production lines in Toronto, bearing constructor number 37215, about March 1945. It was flown to England in April 1945 and issued to No.434 Squadron. The following month it was transferred to No.420 Squadron and returned to Canada. It was to be used in training Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) crews for “Tiger Force”, a Commonwealth force intended for operations in the Pacific. With the sudden end of the war, Tiger Force was abandoned and most of the Lancasters in Canada were placed in storage. Such was the case with KB914.
In 1952 it was overhauled by the De Havilland Aircraft Company (Toronto), converted to a Maritime Reconnaissance role and issued on 14 May to No.405 Squadron, based at Greenwood, Nova Scotia. It had flown 134 hours 30 minutes up to that date.
KB914 bore the markings AG - roundel - 914 and embarked on a varied career of anti-submarine patrols, exercises and occasional search missions. In the next seven months it flew an additional 197 hours 15 minutes. Technical matters were recorded in a document known as an L-14, one copy of which was kept at base, the other traveling with the Lancaster. By sheer good luck, the traveling L-14 survived the Lancaster crash and was found. Among other things, it reported that KB914 had a thorough “periodic” inspection on January 13, 1953 and a less demanding “daily” inspection on January 30, 1953. Reports of these checks included a note from January 8, 1953 - “Leak through body of anti-icer pump, centre position, port nacelle” and a description of the corrective action - “New pump installed and checked as serviceable.” However, on 30 January 1953, the report stated, “Broken de-icer line at pump on port side” with corrective action as “New line installed and checked as serviceable.” The next day there was another entry in the L-14 - “De-icer leak at pump, port side” followed by corrective action - “Line replaced and system topped off.”
Lancasters KB914 and KB868 had been dispatched to Keflavik, Iceland, for an anti-submarine exercise, but on January 31, 1953 their captains received orders to proceed to Goose Bay to participate in the search for a civilian Beechcraft Expeditor. They were to fly to the vicinity of Bluie West One (Greenland) and then do a track crawl to Goose Bay, watching for the missing aircraft. Accordingly, KB868 left at an uncertain time while at 1031 hours Zulu of 1 February, KB914 departed Keflavik, arriving over Goose Bay at 1926 hours Zulu. From this point onwards, everything unraveled. No.405 Squadron’s historical narrative briefly described ominous events:
“Sunday, the first of February opened with rain, followed by freezing snow and very cold. Around 1530 hours Flying Officer [K.S.] Heath and crew [KB868] arrived back from Iceland and landed with their plane coated with heavy snow. At approximately 1800 hours the heart-breaking and terrifying news was received that Flying Officer Wagar and crew [KB914], who had been directed to the search area, were in trouble only 18 minutes flying from Goose Bay and with only two engines left.”
By the time that KB914 was approaching Goose Bay, Labrador, that base was “socked in” and the Ground Control Approach (GCA) system was unserviceable. The aircraft was ordered to divert to Torbay, Newfoundland. This was acknowledged; KB914 was then at 7,000 feet and reportedly had five hours fuel left. Estimated time of arrival at Torbay was 2209 Zulu, well within safe fuel limits. The bomber headed eastwards, but at 2030 hours Zulu (64 minutes after the diversion), the pilot reported that he was returning to Goose Bay with two engines feathered. Arrival at Goose was estimated at 2100 Zulu. They reported their position as approximately 5200 North 5800 West. Sixteen minutes later the pilot requested a weather update for Goose Bay. This was passed but not acknowledged. Thereafter - silence. Lancaster KB914 was missing.
The nine-man crew represented a cross section of Canadian geography and service experience. They were:
- Flying Officer (F/O) Stephen James Decker (navigator), age 24. A native of Cooks Harbour, Newfoundland, he had enlisted in the RCAF in St.John’s, Newfoundland, in 1950.
- F/O Bernard Delbert Forbes (radio officer), age 23. Born in North Bay, Ontario, he had enlisted there in 1951.
- F/O Francis Steward Fowlow (radio officer), age 24. Born in St. John’s, where he had enlisted in 1950.
- Corporal Joseph Donat Gallant (flight engineer), age 34. A native of Urbainville, Prince Edward Island, and a veteran of the Second World War. He had rejoined the RCAF in 1948.
- Corporal Roger David Joseph Lalonde (flight engineer), age 30. Born in Colbalt, Ontario, he was another wartime veteran who had rejoined the force in 1947.
- F/O Charles Bruce Scott (co-pilot), age 27. Born in Saint John, New Brunswick, he was also a wartime veteran and had rejoined the RCAF in 1950.
- F/O Thurland Mabury Tate (radio officer), age 22. Born in Grand Manan, New Brunswick; he had enlisted in Moncton in 1950.
- F/O Thomas Claude Wagar, Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC - pilot), age 32. Born in Parham, Ontario, he had left the RCAF in 1945 but rejoined in 1951.
- F/O Douglas David Richard Wood (navigator), age 21. Born in Peterborough, Ontario, he had enlisted in Toronto, Ontario, in 1950.
Five of the nine lost KB914 airmen. Only two of the photos were labeled with names; F/O Scott (upper left) and F/O Wood (upper middle.).
(HUGH HALLIDAY collection)
Tragedy was compounded by complexity. The next day (2 February), with cold, blown snow still sweeping the area, a British York transport, carrying troops to Jamaica via Gander, vanished over the Atlantic. RCAF search and rescue efforts were now split three ways, looking for the original Expeditor, the Lancaster and now the York.
On June 15, 1953 Mr. D.P. Saunders, piloting a Laurentian Air Services Beaver, spotted wreckage that turned out to be KB914 at 52-56 North 57-56 West. An RCAF ground party led by Squadron Leader (S/L) C.E. Snider reached the site by Norseman aircraft on the afternoon of the 16th. On the 21st, Canso aircraft 11047 (F/O J.H. Haugh) from No.103 Search and Rescue unit reached a lake that was four miles distant from the site, enabling removal of human remains. On 26 June funerals were held in the Greenwood Catholic chapel and at the station drill hall before the bodies were returned to the various hometowns involved.
Investigations began in earnest. Preliminary study of the ground showed that the aircraft had gone in almost vertically; forest damage through impact had been limited although debris had struck trees up to 100 yards distant when the Lancaster exploded. Survival of the important L-14 servicing record was probably due to its being hurled from the wreckage before fire set in. S/L C.N. Stanley subsequently undertook a full-scale investigation.
Considerable attention was paid to the pilot, F/O Wagar. Although most of his wartime flying had been on Halifax bombers, he had nevertheless logged 733 hours on Lancaster (out of a total of 2,590 hours). On rejoining the RCAF he had taken a pilot refresher course at Gimli, Manitoba, and had attended the Instrument Flight School at Centralia, Ontario, where he obtained his “green card.” He was no novice, but as was subsequently discovered, the Pilot’s Notes for the Lancaster MR.10 lacked some crucial information.
The few messages that had passed between Goose Bay control and the crew of KB914 provided few clues. Two crewmen had donned parachutes, suggesting how dire the situation had been perceived by those aboard. The state of the various engines and propellers proved crucial to understanding what transpired during KB914’s final moments. In particular, the propellers of the Nos.2 and 3 engines (the port and starboard inner engines) had been feathered; No.1 engine appears not to have been running at the moment of impact, although it may have functioned for much of the flight; only No.4 engine was giving full power throughout. Precisely what had happened in the last 60 minutes of the flight could never be determined with certainly, but the probable scenario deduced by Stanley was chilling and tragic. One can scarcely imagine what was going through the men’s minds as disaster overtook them.
They would not have known that they were 62 miles off their estimated track, but that was the least of their problems. It was reasonable to assume that when Wagar reported his intended return, he had already feathered the two inner engines. What had caused them to fail? The best guess was that the No.2 engine was the first to fail, probably due to icing, and that failure of the port de-icer system was the prime suspect, given the L-14 evidence of persistent problems there. No.3 engine had then begun overheating and was feathered as well.
A drastic remedy - shutting down the two inner engines - now produced a cascade of troubles. Some of Wagar’s instruments were operated by vacuum pumps in the Nos.2 and 3 engines. When they were feathered, he was denied the use of his artificial horizon, turn and bank indicator and directional gyro. The hydraulic system was also rendered inoperable. As the carburetor intake shutters were hydraulically operated, he would have been unable to change the position of the shutters once he had feathered the engines. It seemed likely that continued icing (which could not be countered) eventually disabled the No.1 engine, leading to catastrophic loss of control.
A memo dated 24 August 1953 (Wing Commander W.O. Reeves, Directorate of Flight Safety to Air Member for Technical Services) analyzed a problem that had implications far beyond KB914’s accident:
“It is the opinion of the inspector who investigated the accident that very few Lancaster pilots are fully aware of the significance of flying when the two inboard engines are feathered. This is borne our by the fact that the board of inquiry (the president and one of the members were experienced Lancaster pilots) were apparently unaware that the carburetor shutters were hydraulically operated. This factor was not brought out in the proceedings.
As Pilot’s Operating Instructions for the Lancaster will soon be issued in the field, it is recommended that an amendment be incorporated whereby more emphasis is placed upon the significance of flying this type of aircraft when the two inboard engines are feathered.”
Flying Officer Wagar and his crew were, therefore, not alone in being unaware of the implications of shutting down a Lancaster’s two inboard engines. Nevertheless, given the de-icer problems and weather conditions, they may have had no other options. The only comfort that anyone would ever be able to take from the crash was that, when the end came, it was mercifully swift.
Lancaster B.X KB925 returned home as part of 408 Squadron and, after conversion by De Havilland Canada, became one of 405 Squadron’s MR.10s alongside KB914. Except for the individual call letter “A”, KB914s finish and markings would have been similar.
(DND DNS-3547 via the TONY STACHIW collection)
About the Author
What can we say about Hugh that hasn't been said already (and that we can print)? He is a former member of the RCAF, an historian and an author with numerous books and articles to his credit. As a contributor to the Journal, his support has been second to none.