Out of the Water


by Alfred Scott

This article appeared in the December 2008 Falco Builders Letter.

Much has transpired in Canada since Simon Paul landed his Falco in the river. Susan Arruda sent an email to Canadian Falco builders asking if anyone was willing to get involved in trying to recover the plane. We now have a stack of emails a half-inch high as a result, so it falls to me to boil it down.

The Falco is the white dot on the far short.

The one volunteer was Bob McCallum, a Falco builder in Toronto. When he's not working on his Falco, he works in engineering and design with a company that makes machinery for putting decoration on plastic parts. Bob has designed and built Formula Ford race cars and is very resourceful and capable with his hands and tools. Bob decided to take on the project, without really knowing what was involved or what would come of it. And Simon was 6,000 miles away without any way to help in the rescue. Since then, the two men have worked well in a cooperative way.

First there was an expedition by Bob and Jack Wiebe to the Geraldton area of Northern Ontario. Jack became involved when he discovered Bob was alone in this venture and graciously offered his expertise and support. While it doesn't look too far when you look at a map of Canada, it was, in fact, a two-day 800-mile drive from Toronto to Geraldton. Then there was the problem of getting to the Falco as the accident site is in the midst of rugged wilderness.

Jack Wiebe and Bob McCallum

There were many troubling things that came up. The Canadian government wanted the plane immediately removed from the water and, if it was not removed, then they would do the removal and send a bill to Simon. The realistic outcome would be that Simon would ignore the bill and give up the ability to visit Canada again. Fortunately for all, it never came to that.

The wreck was in a very uninhabited area approximately 20 miles from the nearest real road. There was much discussion of who might pay the cost of the recovery. Simon was dealing with his insurance company, getting demands from the Canadian government while trying to work things out with Bob. Indeed, Simon ended up in litigation with his insurance company but in the end the insurance company was absolved of paying for the recovery by the courts.

Bob made contact with Recon Air in Geraldton, who were very helpful. They are the world's largest Turbine Otter maintainers, and they do many things from turbine conversions of Beavers and Otters, rebuilding, aerospace manufacturing, and also the inevitable aircraft recovery operation -- see reconair.net. It initially looked like recovery by helicopter was the only alternative, but the cost was estimated at around $25,000 and the insurance company was not very anxious to contribute to that cost. Meanwhile, the Canadian government kept sending Simon messages that they wanted the Falco out of the river. (Recon Air has named this previously un-named body of water "Falco Lake.")

In June, an aerial reconnaissance was successful in finding the plane and confirming that there was no oil slick on the water. This was good news in that there was nothing that would spur instant government action.

The drive into the bush to the landing site is about two hours and 50 km from the nearest good road, and the bush trails are an immense spiderweb of trails over and through very rugged terrain. Although the plane is only about a half-mile from the trail, the 'rescue crew' spent about ten hours in the bush but was unable to locate the plane.

On return to the Geraldton airport they 'borrowed' a Cessna 337 leased by the government for forest fire detection to do another aerial reconnaissance of the site and to try to figure out where they went wrong. They were able to locate the plane and the correct road.

By noon the following day they arrived at an access point to the watercourse containing the plane, launched a boat and set off up the stream towards the plane. Almost immediately they came upon a beaver dam, which they crossed but just beyond encountered an impassable section of rocks, trees, logs, boulders and rapids where the elevation change was about two to three meters in 50 meters of stream.

They walked and forced their way through the forest around this obstacle to the next body of water, which is the second one south of the plane's location. There was however no way to get the equipment through this area. With three or four hours of work, they might have managed to clear a trail and then another hour to haul the gear through, but this still left the next small stream to navigate -- and the possibility of a similar situation -- to reach the next body of water containing the plane. They determined that there wasn't enough time in the day to do all that and still reach the plane before having to return out of the woods.

They made a decision to attempt to try to reach the plane either across country from the closest point or from another small trail they had spotted north of the airplane. They returned to the trucks, reloaded all the gear and checked on these alternate routes. They used a four-wheel ATV to explore the trails. The cross-country route was impossible because of swamp, dense growth, rocks and cliffs, and the north trail was even worse ending nowhere near any access to the water.

At the end of the process, Bob and Jack Wiebe decided they had to get back home. Bob had taken a week's vacation to go after the plane, and they had run out of time.

However, with Recon Air involved, the Canadian government had become very understanding and cooperative, lending their Skymasters for aerial work and backing off on their demands for pollution control booms on the reassurance from Recon Air that the recovery could be handled safely without them, and on Recon Air's word that they were working on the recovery.

Nothing much happened until September, when Recon Air president Roy Luenberger and Jim Bailey made another foray into the bush, this time with minimal equipment and a canoe. They were able to get through those portages with the canoe as opposed to the heavy boat and equipment they had attempted to carry before. With the use of logs as a ramp, ropes, straps, a lot of muscle and ingenuity, they managed to get the Falco on to shore.

Simon describes hitting a tree on the way down, and they found a one-meter-long section of tree embedded partway through the right side of the horizontal stabilizer and significant damage to the right wing from the tree. Most of the fairings and almost the entire belly were ripped from the plane, presumably by the water during the landing.

Roy Luenberger pulls the Falco to the Short

The engine, however, appears intact as is the prop. The engine rotates and appears to have normal compression on all cylinders. This leaves new questions to be answered as Simon's impression of his forced landing was of a catastrophic engine failure, which doesn't appear to be the case. Carburetor ice is the most likely explanation.

Later they returned to jack the plane up and place it on a crib made of logs to support it a meter or two in the air so it isn't buried by the snow this winter. On this second visit to the site, Roy removed the engine and prop and somehow managed to transport them out by canoe. They now safely reside in Recon Air's hangar in Geraldton and have been 'preserved' for possible salvage.

Removing the Falco from the water fixed Simon's liability issue, and everyone hopes that that the salvage from the remains will provide compensation for the efforts of Recon Air and its generous staff. Roy recovered Simon's digital camera, and when he got it all dried out, Simon was able to get the photographs from the memory card.

From the memory card

On the way back out of the bush, Roy noticed a tree about 3/4 mile from the accident site with a strangely broken top. On investigation he discovered wreckage near the base of the tree on the line of flight towards the lake where the Falco came to rest. He says that in looking at the damage to the tree and to the plane, he is amazed that the plane didn't come apart right there. Luckily the tree top appeared somewhat rotten. Roy has nothing but praise for the job Simon did in getting safely to a smooth landing. Roy has been involved in a lot of recoveries, and he says flying the Falco after the impact with that tree is testament to both Simon's skills and the integrity of the Falco.

The next step is to wait for winter, frozen waterways and snow. Roy will get to the site by snow machine and attempt to bring out the airframe on tobaggans.

It has been wonderful to see the Falco community come together and help on this. It was never easy with the problems of regulation, money, insurance companies and communication. This has been one heck of an adventure, but if nothing else, you have come away with a sense of awe for the people involved, particularly Bob McCallum and Roy Luenberger.