Players lost series, but survived crash

Man recalls the downed plane that put Buchans hockey team off its game

Chris Ballard
Published on August 16, 2013

The 1959 Buchans Miners had just dispatched the Corner Brook Royals in a nail-biting, five-game series when it was time to go back to Buchans to rest up for the finals against Grand Falls.

Many of the Miners players were working at the mine in Buchans and the team had chartered a plane to bring the players to and from games.

The weather wasn’t ideal, but the first two flights had landed safely and it was time for centre Norm Higdon and his teammates Hugh Wadden, Robert O’Toole and Tony Head, and team manager Gus Soper, to board their flight back to Buchans.

Not long after the single-engine Beaver left the airport in Deer Lake, pilot Lee Frankham informed his passengers that something was wrong.

“The pilot said to us, ‘B’ys, I have to put her down,’” Higdon remembered.

“‘Watch for the landing.’”

Before they knew it, the Beaver was clipping the tops off the trees before its wings were ripped off and it crash-landed in a bog up against a tree, leaving the team stranded.

Higdon, who lives in Clarenville now, remembers the incident all too well.

“When we left Deer Lake, it started to get drizzly,” he said.

“It started getting colder and the place iced up. When we looked for the land, next thing we heard was tick, tick, tick — the tops coming off the trees.

“One of the boys told me, and I think I may have heard it before, at the time when we were landing, he must have revved the plane and tipped the nose up, so the tail part of the plane was the first part that hit, rather than the nose. We clipped the top off a few trees and next thing, we were in the side of a bog up against a tree.”

Luckily, nobody was seriously hurt. The only injury to report was bruising and abrasions to Gus Soper’s eye.

Higdon and his teammates were lucky to have their lives but they weren’t out of danger. They still had to be rescued. Not knowing if or when they would be found, Higdon and team had to get creative to stay alive.

“The tent was gone out of the plane and the rations weren’t in the plane,” Higdon said.

“When (Frankham) got out, we got the canopy for the engine and made a lean-to out of that for part of the night until it got a bit cold, so we climbed back into the fuselage again until the next morning.”

Higdon and his teammates were forced to dig stockings out of their suitcases and hockey bags to keep warm. Despite spending a chilly night in what turned out to be Hinds Lake, Higdon stayed strong, and he said he doesn’t recall even being scared.

“It was all too quick to get scared.”

“When he said, ‘Watch for the trees,’ what do you do? You watch for the trees.”

The next morning, the group decided to take action to ensure they would be found.

They created a signal to notify possible rescue planes of their location and let them know everyone was still intact.

The team could hear planes passing by that morning but none of them spotted the downed Beaver.

“Early in the morning, one plane flew over us,” Higdon said.

“We threw up the flare but he didn’t see it. We missed that one. During the day, we could hear the planes coming close to us. For some reason, they were searching near Red Indian Lake. That was east of Buchans and we were west of Buchans, by Hinds Lake.”

With hope and patience wearing thin, one pilot decided to check out the Hinds Lake area and spotted the smoke from their fire.

“He saw the symbol and next thing you know, rescue planes were back in and dropping down snowshoes for us,” Higdon said.

“The snow was crust and you could barely walk on it. They dropped down snowshoes and we hiked out to Hinds Lake. I’d say it took maybe a half-hour or so.”

Even as their minds wandered and paranoia set in, Higdon never worried for their safety as the distant sounds of rescue planes kept his hopes alive.

“We could always hear those planes, so we knew they were looking for us. It was just a matter of time. I don’t think there was any real scary times. There was certainly excitement when they found us and started dropping the snowshoes.”

Everyone was rescued successfully in time for the final game of the championship against Grand Falls, but doctors weren’t quick to let Higdon back on the ice.

“When I went back, we had our examinations and the doctor wouldn’t let me play in the finals.

“I had a neck injury before that, where I went into the boards and broke a bone in my neck. I was in a cast for six months. (The plane crash) must have stressed it because he wouldn’t let me play in the playoffs.”

The Buchans Miners were lucky to have been able to ice a team for the 1959 championship finals but the accident took its toll.

“We lost bad against Grand Falls,” Higdon said. “We were shook up pretty good.”

Years after the crash in 2012, Higdon learned that not only does that Beaver still exist and still fly, but its home is now with Bob Efford and Clarenville Aviation on Thorburn Lake.

“I was asked, ‘Norm, were you in that plane that crashed with the hockey team?’” Higdon said.

“Bob just bought it. He’s gone to Ontario to bring it down. I knew they had transported it out from the crash site to the hangar, but I didn’t know it was still around.”

Higdon went out to the lake to see the plane again, and while it looked much different than it did back in 1959, he could tell it was the same plane.

“I had to identify the same numbers first to make sure it was her,” he said.

“It was different. She’s really in good shape — she’s in excellent shape. I was surprised after all those years to see she was still flying. Apparently she had a few different owners since then. Now she’s right back home.”

Efford was well aware of the plane’s history when he purchased it in June 2012.

Dehavilland Beavers are highly coveted in the aviation world and many of them have been restored and still fly.

“Most of these airplanes have had damage,” Efford said. “Some of them have probably been beaten up two or three times.”

The last Dehavilland Beaver was built was in 1966. Of the 1,600 that came off the original assembly line, Efford says close to 1,200 are still in operation.

“They’re a Canadian-built aircraft,” Efford said.

“It’s the best bush plane ever built. Four or five years ago, it was named one of the Top 10 engineering feats in Canadian history in the last 100 years.”

Efford was also able to shine some light on the history of this particular plane.

“That Beaver was bought brand new by the Buchans Mining Co. in 1952. When she crashed, she was on skis at the time. These airplanes were selling for up to $50,000 brand new. Now they sell for upwards of half a million.”

Looking back

Higdon, of Buchans, moved to Clarenville in 1968 to work at the college, educating future electricians. When asked about his current attitude toward planes and air travel, Higdon laughed and shrugged his shoulders.

“It don’t bother me. Not after all these years,” he said.

“I don’t mind planes now. My son is a pilot. He doesn’t fly now but he did his pilot’s licence, commercial licence and his float licence. He did his float licence with Bob on the lake. When he did his flying in St. John’s, he used to come out here and I went around with him a few times.”

The Packet