Friday, November 6, 2009

50 YEARS AGO: A Microburst… Trans-Canada Air Lines, and the Shameful Treatment of Captain Harry Bell

AS YOU SALUTE US, Captain Harry Bell, decorated WW II Halifax bomber pilot, formerly of RCAF Group 6 of Bomber Command, we salute you.

Good father. Faithful husband. Churchgoing man. Proud Canadian.

Esteemed, Trans Canada Air Lines (TCAL) captain…

Well, until October 3, 1959, that is.

And on that day, Harry’s whole world would change and the rest of the world wouldn’t catch up to Harry until 16 years later. When he should have been vindicated.

But, even then, he wasn’t.

That wasn’t TCAL, or Air Canada’s way.

Admitting that a mistake had been made, that blame had been placed on a proud man’s shoulders, where it never should have been, well, they couldn’t just do that, now could they?

Through the years there would be Workers Comp hearings. Harry’s back was pranged after the accident, but TCAL didn’t believe that, either. So Trans Canada Air Lines even got Harry a job at Japan Air Lines! Right after, they fired him!

But Harry didn’t show up at the new job, the refusnik!! The logic escaped Canada’s national airline at the time, but everyone else could see it. If Harry can’t fly airplanes for TCAL, how could he possibly fly them for JAL?! Tokyo comfort girls be damned!

Worker’s Compensation eventually sided with Harry, and forced the petulant airline management to compensate him monetarily for the injury that he had sustained while flying for them. And thereafter he received a pension from Trans Canada.

But what solution to Harry’s battered reputation?

Well, that too appeared to come out of Japan.


Only 16 years later.

In 1975, Japanese meterologist Tetsuya Fujita, provided the explanation, which had eluded Harry in 1959, when his TCAL four-engined Vickers Viscount (CF-TGY) quite suddenly slammed into the ground.

On that day in October of ‘59, Harry had just taken over from his co-pilot who had been piloting the new aircraft, but had become alarmed, even bewildered, by the intensity of a localized thunderstorm that had appeared unexpectedly, and only last ed briefly, over Malton Airport.

And which, they were now flying into.

Captain Bell assured his First Officer, John M. that he had control, could see the runway clearly, and would take passengers and crew, in. Check.

Maybe ten seconds later, there was a sudden drop of the Viscount, a whoosing sound, a loud thud, followed up by that even louder, unbearable sound of metal tearing.

They had landed alright. Before the runway!

Straight through a reservoir.

And the new Vickers Viscount?

Well, now, only a broken mess.

A complete write off. Hull loss, as its known in the airline biz.

John pulled Harry out his pilot’s window. Harry couldn’t move.

Jane N. the stewardess, got all passengers safely out, and away from the plane, that was now lying on the ground, broken, just aft of the cockpit. Its undercarriage… well, no where to be seen.

Harry couldn’t explain what had happened. But he knew that he had made no operational mistake in the execution of his duties as a pilot.

It didn’t take Trans Canada Air Lines long to decide what would happen, though.

Harry got his last pay cheque the following week, stapled to a letter of recommendation from Trans Canada Air Lines. The page was blank.

And Harry had kept it through the years.

Still outraged, some forty-five odd years later when I met up with him, as anybody rightly should be for being blamed for an event, especially something as colossal as a airplane crash, which he hadn't actually caused.

So WHAT was the cause, folks?

A microburst.

Oh, Microsoft… that explains it!

No, NOT MICROSOFT, they weren’t even around then… a MICROBURST!

Here’s how it happens, and yes, microbursts have thrown around even larger aircraft than Harry’s, with even more tragic results!

Harry’s Viscount entered a suddenly appearing, localized severe thunderstorm, at Toronto International Airport (Malton Airport, back then) while on the landing approach. When that flight crew had originally plotted this flight from Montreal making their customary weather check, there were no storm warnings coming out of Toronto.

The coast, or rather Malton, was clear.

All right then.

As Harry was landing his Viscount and began entering the microburst, he encountered headwinds that increased the air speed of his airplane. To maintain a slower and proper airspeed for landing, and the aircraft’s rate of descent, Harry reduced engine power to compensate.

However, just as the Viscount got through the headwind, it encountered a downdraft.

Then a tailwind.

The Viscount was now flying too slowly to stay aloft, and since power had been cut previously, the Viscount was left without the necessary power to quickly climb again.

Some aircraft go nose first after flying into a microburst.

Fortunately, Harry’s Viscount just pancaked onto the ground and thus everyone onboard survived.

Fujita published his theories on microbursts in 1974. The scientific community both embraced his theories, and reviled them at the time.

But on June 24, 1975 Eastern Air Lines Boeing 727 crashed in New York City at Kennedy Airport killing 113 of the 124 aboard. That accident was blamed on a severe localized thunderstorm that caused an intense downdraft which forced the Eastern 727 airliner to pancake into the runway. Fujita, had earlier stated that when something comes down from the sky, and hits the ground, it will spread out. That was the observed pattern of the 727 crash. This outburst effect, and pattern, Fujita first noticed after flying over Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.

But the blame for the accident and loss of the Viscount prop-liner STILL remains on Harry's reputation to this day, because no one at Air Canada has done the right thing, and reversed the ancient conclusion, or offered him apology.

I have no idea whether Harry is still alive, but expect his family would certainly accept the proper overture from Air Canada. One, cancels out the other. Even many years hence.

But that is the realm for gods, and for the high, and mighty.

And not, not, for an airline that seems to be on the verge of bankruptcy, and internal disaster, every other year—

(Pictured is Harry in his RCAF bomber's jacket… and a battered and weathered Trans Canada Air Lines Vickers Viscount just like the ones Harry used to fly)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My Grandfather was a passsenger on this flight - I would love to find out more about about accident. I also have pictures taken by my grandfather on the day after the crash that I would be happy to share. (Contact: