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Liberator AL591 Crash

by Frank Tibbo

There is a lot of tragedy in Gander's history, and this story is about the largest loss of life, military or civil, up to that time (1943) in Gander's short history. The crash killed 19 military personnel, 18 of whom were members of ferry command crews that were so desperately needed to ferry the bombers across the Atlantic. The crews were returning to Canada for more aircraft to deliver to the United Kingdom. They had successfully delivered bombers to Britain and were heading back home for more.

LiberatorLiberators AL591 and AL529 departed Prestwick for Gander on February 7, 1943. Liberator AL529 successfully diverted to Sydney because of Gander's weather, but 591 crashed on approach at Gander after running out of fuel. That is a rather succinct analysis of the tragedy, but there is quite a bit more to the story.

In baseball you are out if you get three strikes. The poor chaps on 591 would have at least four strikes against them during this trip.

It would seem that the method of flying, along with an unexpected encounter with the jet-stream, had most to do with the fuel shortage. The two identical aircraft departed minutes apart with the same amount of fuel (1960 gallons) bound for the same destination. One got there with over two hours of fuel remaining, enough to divert to Sydney and the other had only enough fuel for one approach at Gander.

On departure, the captain of Liberator 529 elected to climb to 8,000 feet at an airspeed of 188 knots with the idea of burning off some fuel before climbing higher. In the meantime, 591 climbed to 16,000 at an airspeed of 212 knots. Had the Liberators been equipped with today's navigation devices, 591 would have descended to a lower altitude without delay. The crew of 591 would have known that the head-winds at 16,000 were much too strong and would have found a more friendly altitude at which to fly.

In the meantime, moisture combined with the freezing temperature put the fuel gauges in 591 out of order. Strike one!

It was several hours later before the navigator could get an astro fix and told the pilot the bad news. They were bucking a terrific head wind. Strike two!

Despite taking immediate action to conserve fuel such as lowering the airspeed and descending to a lower altitude they estimated that they would only have enough fuel to reach Gander and make two approaches.

That would not have been too bad, but the radio officer advised that he had more bad news. A snow storm at Gander had developed, and all aircraft should divert to an alternate airport. The snow had reduced the visibility to almost zero, and the ceiling was only 200 feet.

It was impossible for the Liberator to proceed to an alternate airport because there was barely enough fuel to get to Gander. Strike three!

Liberator 591 reported over the Gander Radio Range and was cleared to make an approach. The end of a successful approach on the Radio Range puts the aircraft on course for Runway 27. The captain made a perfect approach and came over the airport only to find out that the lights had been put on Runway 05-23 instead of Runway 27. Strike four!

They saw Runway 27 too late to land; however, had the lights been on that runway instead of Runway 05, it seems that they may have landed safely.

What is not known is whether 591 asked to have the lights put on Runway 27 prior to making the approach. The wind was on Runway 05, and it is normal for aircraft to use the runway in the wind. However, the weather was such that it was impossible for the aircraft to circle around the field and find Runway 05. What is known is that when 591 saw that the lights were on Runway 05. He asked to have them changed to Runway 27.

The captain advised the crew and passengers that he would try one more approach and if he missed this time, he would climb to 10,000 and give the order to bail out. However, the fuel situation was even more critical than the captain realized. He didn't have enough fuel for another approach, at least not one where he would have to turn the aircraft very steeply. It was on such a turn that two engines cut without warning sending the aircraft down to the frozen ground eight miles east of the airport. The nose section broke off, all four engines broke off, and the tail section broke off close to where one of three survivors was tossed out.

The survivors had to wait for two days for the storm to abate before they were found. On Thursday, February 11, the weather cleared and the search began. Three Hudsons, the station ski-equipped Norseman, and Ferry Command's de Havilland Fox Moth (V0-ADE) also on skis and flown by Joe Gilmour (Gilmour Street, Gander), were almost certain that the aircraft had gone down east of the field. They found the wreck eight miles from the airport on the east leg of the Gander Radio Range. The Norseman and the Fox Moth put down by the wreckage and airlifted the three survivors to the Banting Memorial Hospital.

Of the 21 people aboard, 18 were dead including the 5 crew members. The three who survived the crash were Capt. King Parker, F/O Paul Ableson and Pilot-Sergeant Graham Pollard. P-Sgt Pollard died in hospital on February 13.

Nineteen of the 21 were dead. The dead included 11 from Great Britain, 5 from Canada and 3 from the United States of America. Twelve were civilians flying aircraft for Ferry Command, five were members of the RAF, two were members of the RCAF and one was a British Army officer. Included in the 12 civilians were four crew members of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).

The Commonwealth Graves story listed names of those who died on 591 and who are buried there. Three American ferry pilots who died on 591 were initially buried at the Commonwealth Graves; but after the war, their remains were disinterred and taken back to the U.S. Their names are:

F.E. Dugan
R.M. Lloyd
J. Stagner

The following are entries from the RCAF Station Diary:

Feb. 9, 1943

An R.A.F.F.C. Liberator #AL591 from the United Kingdom arrived over the station at 2200 hrs. The ceiling was 200 feet with visibility zero owing to a heavy fall of sleet. The pilot of the aircraft was in contact with the tower and reported that his gasoline gauge had stuck and he did not know how much fuel he had left. Owing to the long crossing caused by strong head winds, the pilot stated he could not reach Sydney and was going to land. The last message was received at 2315 hrs. after the Liberator had passed over the station at 100 ft. in an attempt to land. Contact was suddenly lost and it is feared the aircraft was forced down. A search will be organized immediately weather permits.

Feb. 11, 1943

Clear weather with all aircraft out at dawn on a search for Liberator AL591. The crashed aircraft was found early in the morning by a Harvard. It was about eight miles from the station, and upon aircraft on skis landing in the vicinity, three men were found alive and were immediately given medical aid and brought to the Station Hospital. One of the three survivors, Sgt G.P. Pollard, died in the hospital, which brought the total casualties in this crash to nineteen. The two men who are in the hospital do not appear to be suffering any serious injuries.

Submitted by F. Tibbo

 

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