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High-flying farm workshop project

These men went to great lengths to bring in and restore a 1943 Canso PBY-5A airplane

Many farmers have travelled long distances to bring back a unique restoration project to put in the workshop for the winter. But six men from Fairview, Alberta, may hold the record for having the most-difficult-to-retrieve farm shop project ever. They trekked all the way to Sitidgi Lake, Northwest Territories, to rescue an abandoned 1943 Canso PBY-5A aircraft.

The classic airplane had once been assigned to the Royal Canadian Airforce’s 162 squadron based in Iceland and saw duty in convoy escorts and submarine patrols during the Second World War. It eventually ended up abandoned in the wilderness after a 2001 accident during firefighting operations while part of Buffalo Air’s fleet of water bombers.

The original Canso Crew members, (L-R) Joe Gans, Norbert Luken, Brian Wilson, Don Wieben, Doug Roy and Henry Dechant.

The original Canso Crew members, (L-R) Joe Gans, Norbert Luken, Brian Wilson, Don Wieben, Doug Roy and Henry Dechant.
photo: Save the Canso

That company agreed to sell it to the group of would-be restorers. All they had to do was go get it. That, however, was easier said than done.

“It was 40 kilometres, cross country, east of Inuvik,” says Doug Roy, one of the original group who decided to take on this extraordinary restoration project. “Don (Wieben) talked to other people around and put together this group. The Canso Group, we called ourselves. This was in March of 2008. Six of us went north to Inuvik.”

The team lived in tents during the four weeks it took just to get the plane to Inuvik. They towed it across the frozen lake and wilderness on skis to the Dempster highway, then put it back on wheels for the trip into the city.

“It was 2:30 at night when we pulled it into town,” says Roy. “They had to close the highway for us.”

It took four weeks to tow the plane across country to get it to Inuvik.

It took four weeks to tow the plane across country to get it to Inuvik.
photo: Save the Canso

Even with some of the transportation costs being donated to help the cause, Roy estimates just getting the plane home to Fairview cost the group about $35,000. Since then, restoration costs have risen to more than $200,000, funded in large part by donations since the group formed an organization called SavetheCanso Ltd. and launched their website, savethecanso.com.

“We like to say we started out with six, but now literally hundreds have helped out in one way or another and got involved,” says Roy. “We now have about 40 in our group. And seven or eight guys show up every Wednesday night (to work on the plane).”

For the past eight years the Canso has occupied two farm workshops on Brian Wilson’s farm near Fairview.

Some of the Canso group had previous experience with aircraft restoration, but many didn’t. They’ve been able to hire aircraft maintenance engineering students from Alberta technical colleges during summers and part time to help in the work.

The Canso came out of the farm shop in April to have its wing attached as the end of its eight-year restoration neared.

The Canso came out of the farm shop in April to have its wing attached as the end of its eight-year restoration neared.
photo: Save the Canso

A town museum in Newfoundland had a similar non-airworthy aircraft on display that still had a pair of working engines, and the group was able to exchange them for the two that were originally on their plane, which required major overhauls. That reduced the restoration budget significantly. The working engines were taken to another group member’s farm shop for refurbishment before being installed on the plane.

In late April the Canso was finally pulled out of the farm workshop to have its wings reinstalled as the end of the restoration approached. After that, the plan was to take the Canso to the Fairview airport for final airworthiness inspections. Roy says the group wants that airport to be its permanent home.

The group will lease the Canso to the Fairview Aircraft Restoration Society, which intends to fly it around to different air shows and events across North America once a valid certificate of air worthiness is issued, making it probably the only example of a Canso PBY in Canada that still flies.

“The goal has always been to restore it back to its original wartime configuration,” says Roy. “We know the interest in the long term will be in the time it served in the war.”

About the author

Machinery Editor

Scott Garvey is the machinery editor for Grainews.

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