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Louise Sacchi

by Frank Tibbo

“I can give up TWA easier than I can give up smoking!” Louise Sacchi (Sacchi Avenue, Gander) was never shy about giving her opinion. I had been asking her about her return flights from Europe as a passenger after ferrying an aircraft across the North Atlantic. I was on duty in Gander’s Area Control Centre, and Louise was making her usual visit before taking off on another solo trip across more than two thousand miles of salt water. I was curious which airline was her favourite on her numerous return flights to North America. “Well, I used to fly TWA, but now I fly Lufthansa. TWA instituted a no smoking rule, and I can give up TWA easier than I can give up smoking.” (Sacchi)

During the 1960s, Louise Sacchi, an American flight instructor, was a familiar sight to airport employees. She, along with many others, was engaged in the lucrative business of delivering aircraft, the majority of which were single-engine, to overseas customers.

One of the chaps in the meteorological office said, “I could recognize her a mile away with her tall figure and long skirts.” Another met. briefer said, “She’d always remember my forecast from the previous flight and would tell me how accurate or inaccurate I was – sometimes with a touch of rancour.”

To the best of my knowledge, no one has flown more solo flights across the North Atlantic. I was on duty when she made number 300. As usual, she was in the Air Traffic Control Centre prior to her flight. “Well, Louise, this is quite the day for you. This will be your 300th crossing. We've got a street called after Conrad, and he only had 200.” It was very easy for Louise to look at you with disdain, “Yes, but he's a man!”
 
A short time later, the Gander Town Council readily accepted the idea to name a street in her honour.

The only time she ran into trouble, as far as I know, was on January 26, 1965. She had been cleared for an ILS (instrument approach) on Gander’s Runway 04. It was one of those typical cold and blustery nights. The controller in the Gander Area Control Centre monitored the target on radar. Approximately four miles from the end of the runway, the radar target disappeared. The Control Centre went into action immediately. An intense monitoring of the radar showed no target, and it seems evident that the aircraft had crashed.

The Centre’s transmissions went unanswered, but controllers continued to monitor the radio frequency.

Search and Rescue, which was based in Halifax then, were advised of the situation. They advised that the weather would prevent them from getting a search started until the next day. If Sacchi was alive when she crashed, she would be dead in a few hours from hypothermia.

A few minutes after the target was lost, a controller could hear a faint transmission. It was Ms. Sacchi reporting that she had crashed but that she was in reasonably good condition, but the cold weather was "freezing my butt off, can you get me out of here?"

Sometimes it seems necessary to tell lies or half-truths, and this was one of them. She was assured that she would be rescued, but the controllers didn’t know if anyone could get her out in time. The supervisor instructed a controller to continue transmitting to Sacchi. “We have to keep her awake; if she goes to sleep in this temperature, she’ll freeze.”

In the meantime, ATC had informed the RCMP of the situation. Constables Harry Murphy and Ken Cudahay commenced working on a rescue plan. The first thing necessary was a boat to get across Gander Lake. Eric Crewe was contacted and cheerfully agreed. The Armed Forces station was contacted, and Sgt Jack, Sgt Dubule, Cpl Jacobson, Cpl Wagner and LAC. Waldriff volunteered to join the search party. Two capable woodsmen Ches Pittman and Harry Lilly volunteered to guide the group. Pharmacist Roy Jenkins rounded out the rescue party.

The chances of finding Sacchi in time were not too good, considering the fact that the radar position could be out by several hundred yards. Captain Marsh Jones (Jones Place, Gander) of Eastern Provincial Airways was contacted and told about the situation. The weather was anything but good, however, Jones agreed to see if he could determine her position by flying in the vicinity. If he could locate her he could guide the rescue party. This would only work, of course, if ATC could keep in contact with Sacchi and tell her to activate her landing light at the appropriate time.

ATC vectored the aircraft flown by Jones to the spot where he had last seen Sacchi's aircraft on radar. ATC told Ms. Sacchi to switch her landing light on in the hope that Captain Jones would see her position. It worked! Jones gave her position to ATC who relayed it to the rescue team. They now had a very good idea where the aircraft was.

Less than six hours after she crashed, Sacchi was in the Gander Hospital. It was a result of the fine work and co-operation of all concerned. Ms Sacchi was extremely cold and had some injuries but nothing serious enough to keep her out of the flying business. The next month she was back at it again.

Incidentally, the crash was caused because of a problem with the aircraft – not the pilot. Ms. Sacchi retired in 1980 after number 340. That record stands today. She died on March 22, 1997.

Contributed by F. Tibbo


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