Vince Charron is a retired airline pilot who is leading an expedition next month to the Quebec bush in search of the long-lost wreck of a crashed Lockheed Super Constellation. Three men died in the 1973 crash near Casey, Que. He is photographed at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.
A light drizzle was falling just after dawn when pilot Jim Carlin pushed forward the throttles of his massive Super Constellation aircraft and began to roll.
Once known as “The Queen of the Sky,” the four-engined, three-tailed “Super Connie” was one of the most elegant aircraft of the golden age of air travel. But on this June day in 1973, American-registered N173W had been given a most unglamorous job: spraying pesticides to control spruce budworm in the middle of the Quebec wilderness.
Loaded with fuel and chemicals, N173W lumbered into the air on the first sortie of the day from the abandoned RCAF runway in Casey, Que., 250 kilometres north of Montreal. Carlin pulled up the wheels and retracted the flaps.
But something was wrong. Barely 200 feet above the ground, its four propellers straining at full power, the giant airliner plowed sluggishly through the air, then began to sink.
“Everything was normal until about a half mile from the runway,” an eyewitness told investigators with Transport Canada. “(Name censored) said, ‘He’s falling.’ I had looked away. When I looked back, I could see the aircraft falling, but still in a climb angle. It kept falling until it was out of sight beyond some trees. … The next thing I saw was a huge ball of flame, and then the bang.”
The three crew members — Carlin, First Officer A. Condey and Flight Engineer Rick Rickatelli — never had a chance. The plane clipped the treetops on the north side of the narrow Rivière Ruban, about three kilometres south of the runway, then rammed into a low ridge on the opposite shore, exploding into a pesticide- and gasoline-fuelled fireball.
“You can just imagine what it was like on board that aircraft,” said Vince Charron, a retired airline pilot and former bush flyer from Orléans, who is mounting an expedition later this month to search for pieces of the Super Connie.
“Air accidents usually occur in seconds,” he said. “But those must have been very long seconds for that crew.”
The N173W crash site is about nine hours northeast of Ottawa by 4X4 over gravel logging roads, near the tiny settlement of Casey. The remote location was once the home of a Royal Canadian Air Force base, built in 1952 in the hottest days of the Cold War. When the air force pulled out in 1964, the enormous 8,200-foot concrete runway was run privately, used by bush flyers and the occasional drug smuggler. It is now abandoned.
Charron has spent more than a year researching the crash, studying aerial photos of the site and digging up the rare scraps of information he could find about it with the help of another enthusiast, Steffan Watkins, of Carp. Transport Canada referred him to the Transportation Safety Board. The TSB said it had no record of the crash. Charron was about to give up hope when an access-to-information request uncovered the original accident report at Library and Archives Canada. The report, now uploaded on his Mission Casey, QC 2015 Facebook group, is a trove of information about the crash, including detailed maps, drawings and photographs of the impact site.
The cause was pilot error: Investigators determined the crew had retracted the flaps too early from their takeoff position. Flaps improve the lift of the wings when flying low and slow at takeoff and landing. Likely realizing their error, the crew tried desperately to extend the flaps again, but it was too late. Even with the engines at maximum power, they could not keep the heavily laden plane in the air.
The crew was also likely fatigued from a number of long missions in the previous few days. Significantly, the investigators noted that effects of the pesticide — Fenitrothion — “could not be ruled out” as a contributing factor. “Repeated exposure to this chemical, even in small quantities, can often manifest itself in deterioration of reasoning and judgment, particularly when combined with physical fatigue,” they wrote.
After the crash investigators were done, a metal recycler reached the site and removed much of what was left, including the four engines, the wings and the larger pieces of aluminum. Since then, Charron believes, the remote site has rarely been visited.
Even the Casey airstrip is a mysterious site. Built for the RCAF as part of the Pinetree early warning line, the base had its massive runway and a network of concrete bomb storage shelters. It never went into operation as advances in radar and jet-powered bombers made the Pinetree Line obsolete. It received some notoriety in 1992 when pilot Raymond Boulanger landed in Casey in a cargo plane loaded with more than $1 billion of cocaine from Colombia. What Boulanger didn’t realize was that he’d been followed by Canadian CF-18s. At the time, it was the largest drug bust in Canadian history. Boulanger served more than 20 years in prison.
Boulanger, whose story is told in the book Le Pilote Mercenaire by Daniel Renaud, flew spray operations in the Super Connie himself before turning to the drug trade.
“It was the ‘Queen of the Sky’ at the time,” Boulanger said. “It was a great airplane, but you had to be very careful. It was a piston-engine airplane so you were always at the limits of your power. … They were dangerously low and slow.”
Boulanger flew up to Casey in the days after the crash to see it for himself. “You couldn’t get anywhere near it. It was all smokey and the forest was full of Fenitrothion. That stuff’s lethal. You don’t want to be anywhere near it.”
Of the hundreds of Constellations and Super Constellations built, only a handful remain, scattered in air museums around the world. Only one is believed to still be airworthy. Charron is fascinated by the old aircraft, with its four giant radial engines. And he has a personal connection as well — his mother was a flight attendant on Super Constellations with Eastern Airlines.
Charron and a handful of other aviation buffs will travel to Casey at the end of May to search for N173W. He’ll bring an inflatable Zodiac boat to reach the crash site, a sophisticated metal detector and even a camera-fitted aerial drone to help in the search. An amateur radio enthusiast, Charron plans to string a temporary radio antenna for emergency use because the area is far beyond the range of anything but a satellite phone.
He also plans to leave a plaque at the site to memorialize the three lost crew members, all Americans, although efforts to find surviving relatives have turned up nothing.
“They died in the line of duty,” Charron said. “Who knows, maybe someone will read about this and say, ‘Hey, that was my father or my grandfather.’ ”
But at the heart of Charron’s mission is a sense of adventure and curiosity. There are no more ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ to answer.
“I’m not trying to do any investigation or to discover anything new,” Charron said. “I’m just hoping to bring back a little bit of history.”
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NTSB Identification: LAX73OL014
14 CFR Part 91 General Aviation
LOCKHEED 1049G, registration: N173W
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- FILE DATE LOCATION AIRCRAFT DATA INJURIES FLIGHT PILOT DATA F S M/N PURPOSE -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 6-0019 73/6/9 CASEY,QUEBEC,CAN LOCKHEED 1049G CR- 3 0 0 COMMERCIAL AIRLINE TRANSPORT, AGE TIME - 1330 N173W PX- 0 0 0 AERIAL APPLICATION 51, 6050 TOTAL HOURS, DAMAGE-DESTROYED OT- 0 0 0 UNK/NR IN TYPE, INSTRUMENT RATED. NAME OF AIRPORT - CASEY DEPARTURE POINT INTENDED DESTINATION CASEY,QUEBEC,CAN LOCAL TYPE OF ACCIDENT PHASE OF OPERATION COLLISION WITH GROUND/WATER: CONTROLLED TAKEOFF: OTHER SPECIAL DATA KIND OF OPERATION - UNKNOWN/NOT REPORTED FIRE AFTER IMPACT REMARKS- INVESTIGATION UNDER THE JURISDICTION OF THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT.