Remembering the "Christmas miracle," a Trans-Canada Airlines flight that crashed in Brampton farmland when the pilot undershot the runway at Malton.
Before her afternoon bridge game, Roma Watson walks calmly toward a cluster of Brampton homes where, 60 years ago, she escaped the wreckage of a fiery plane.
“It landed about where that red house is there,” says Gord McClure, 69, walking with her on this journey back in memory, through a parkette near the Mount Pleasant GO station. “It jumped over three farms and landed there . . . the ground was frozen, you’d remember that.”
“Yep. I don’t remember too much about it, but I remember burning,” says Watson, 81.
Then called Roma Neundorf, she was flying home for Christmas at the time. McClure, just 9, had been at a Christmas concert with his family and returned home to see flashing emergency lights in the normally peaceful countryside.
“23 LIVE” proclaimed the Toronto Daily Star the next day: “Christmas miracle.”
“It’s totally different now of course, with all these houses,” Watson says.
“You haven’t changed much; you’re well preserved,” says McClure, who has Watson laughing as they reach the approximate crash site, now Trudelle Crescent in Brampton, a collection of two-storey homes, one decorated with inflatable Christmas decorations.
The survivors remember a different scene: the sound of exploding oxygen tanks, the smell of singed hair, the dark, smoky interior of the plane.
The flight was travelling from Tampa, Fla., with 16 passengers and seven crew. The Super Constellation, “The Connie,” was a new plane to Trans-Canada Airlines (now Air Canada).
“Its pièce de résistance is the most modern galley kitchen in the air: a five-square-metre space, complete with refrigerator, ovens, automatic coffee machines . . . even a kitchen sink!” Air Canada notes in the historical timeline on its website.
On Dec. 17, 1954, the clouds were low and ragged, only 300 feet above what was then Malton Airport. Sleet and snow reduced visibility. The pilots, having no visual reference to the ground, were forced to make an instrument approach for Runway 10.
On a precision instrument approach, a pilot has to capture the localizer and the “glide slope” to the runway. The instrument face has two needles — one sliding up and down (glide slope) and one sliding left to right (localizer). The glide slope needle starts at the top, and when you “capture it” by flying at the correct altitude, the needle moves to the centre of the instrument and remains centered as you fly the correct slope. The idea is to keep the needles crossed in the centre to stay on the lateral and vertical path to the runway, explains Lynne McMullen, the chair of Seneca College School of Aviation.
In older planes, instruments had been colour coded, and Captain Norman Ramsay was adjusting to the new system, remembers Gary Anderson, who was the 22-year-old first officer of the flight.
On the approach to Malton, they hadn’t reached the glide slope, and Anderson told Ramsay the plane was too low. “The captain appears to have ignored the importance of this message,” the investigation notes of his continued descent.
Ramsay later told investigators he misread the altimeter as 2,800 feet rather than 1,800 feet. He instructed Anderson to conduct his “before landing” checks. The card Anderson held for the task obscured the instruments in the small cockpit.
“By the time I finished (the checks) and I put down the card and looked up, that’s when I saw we were at 850 feet; of course, that’s when all hell broke loose,” Anderson says, recalling the doomed flight from his Mississauga home.
“When I screamed to him we weren’t by the outer marker, he pulled back and it rotated the airplane enough that we hit on our gear rather than nose-in . . . it could have been a lot more damaging.”
“I thought we were still several thousand feet in the air,” passenger Samuel Young told the Star in 1954. “Then there was a terrific jolt and all the lights went out. Next thing, we were bouncing along on the ground and it seemed as if we would never stop.”
The last thing Anderson remembers of the flight is seeing a tree ahead and throwing his arm in front of his body. “Like a huge can opener,” the Star wrote, the tree sliced off the plane’s right wing. Anderson would later be carried unconscious from the plane by Ramsay and a flight attendant.
“If we’d have been in the air another 15 to 20 seconds, we would have landed in the middle of Brampton,” he says.
When it finally came to a stop, the plane was in three pieces. There were flash fires in the cabin. Roma Watson’s arms were burning.
“You could smell flesh burning, I remember you saying,” recalls Watson’s daughter, Andrea Mozas, who has come along to the crash site.
“Oh gosh, see, she remembers everything I say and I don’t remember it,” Watson says.
Watson had been sitting next to her friend Marlene Stewart (now Marlene Stewart Streit) — both accomplished golfers who attended Rollins College in Florida. Everyone was seated in the back of the plane in first class, close to the galley, Stewart Streit says.
“I looked up, and noticed there was a big gash in the side of the plane, right where my feet were — and that’s where the wing must have broken off, you see,” says Stewart Streit, who jumped through the hole.
“I yelled back in to Roma, ‘Come here, because there’s an opening here.’”
Ron Campbell, 17, on his way to Burnt River for Christmas, remembers the plane filling with smoke, and that he lost one of his penny loafers. He thinks it happened when he kicked open an emergency door.
“The funny thing about it — I can say this because I’m still here — I always figured I could get out of that some way or other, eh?” he says.
Outside the plane, everyone was dazed.
“You know, this thing is going to blow up, we gotta get out of here, we can’t just stand here,’ ” Stewart Streit recalls saying.
She saw a light in a nearby farmhouse, and they began to walk through the snow, many in sock feet, many injured. Nearby farmers had felt a “great shock wave” and rushed to help, including McClure Archdekin and Dick Crichton.
The plane was later “blown to bits,” the Star reported.
“You know, 30 years later we were still finding pieces of the plane when we plowed the field,” remembers McClure, now a town councillor in Caledon. Jim Archdekin, son of McClure Archdekin, recalls the same thing.
“He was impressed that everybody survived,” he says of his father.
Many of the passengers were taken to hospital. Some had burns, while others were able to walk away. Watson had to take tranquilizers for several years after that, any time she flew.
“Nowadays, you know what I say to myself? The pilot wants to live just as much as I do.”
A board of inquiry blamed the accident on “negligence on the part of the captain,” who believed he was much closer to the airport than was the case.
Ramsay was grounded by TCA, but regained his commercial pilot’s license in 1955 and joined Maritime Central Airways, according to the Star. In 1957, he was flying a group of British-Canadian veterans home to Toronto when he flew into a storm outside Quebec City. The plane nosedived and crashed. All 79 aboard died, including Ramsay, in what was Canada’s worst-ever air crash at the time.
Pilots usually alter the flight path to avoid storms, but investigators noted that the 1957 flight may have already been in cloud and flew unknowingly into danger. It was also possible, with low fuel and no weather reports showing the chance of storm clouds, that Ramsay “elected to penetrate what could have appeared to a tired crew to be a minor build-up.” The crew had been on duty for close to 23 hours, with more than 19 hours in the air.
Anderson was driving to Montreal when he heard the news about the fatal crash.
“I liked Norm … I found him very nice; me being 22, they were all nice,” he says.
Anderson retired from Air Canada in 1991, but aviation runs in the family, and he recently gave his grandson some advice:
“When you’re flying, it doesn’t matter who the captain is; if you see something wrong, speak up,” he says.
“It was a crew thing, but I just happened to see because I wasn’t flying and I could look around and see, where Norm was doing the flying and concentrating,” he says. “In this case it was a little too late — you call, he reacted, and bang! You hit the ground.”
In Brampton, a plane roars overhead, unseen in the clouds. McClure and Watson look to the sky, but there is no way to tell if it is coming or going.
“We’re glad we made it,” Watson says.
“I’m glad you did, too,” McClure says.
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Pieces of a Super Constellation airplane burn in a Brampton farm field in 1954.