Plane Wrecks, Aviation Archaeology and Northern Heritage

This post continues our look at the work of Alberta’s Archaeological Survey. An expanded version of this article can be found in the Fall 2013 issue of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society Journal.

Plane wrecks are unique and dramatic physical records of human movement. We document here the archaeology and history of a 1952 B-17 plane crash to help illustrate the deep and fascinating roots of northern aviation. We reconstructed mission details from accident reports and discovered interesting connections to the famous Northwest Staging Route, which was a significant transportation network that spanned Alberta.

Scale of the SB-17G and the 8 crew members on the ill-fated 1952 flight (diagram T. Kristensen).

Scale of the SB-17G and the 8 crew members on the ill-fated 1952 flight (diagram T. Kristensen).

On July 11, 1952, a modified B-17 (an SB-17G) set out from Alaska on a search mission in the Yukon to locate a crashed Royal Canadian Air Force plane that had disappeared in June. The B-17 was originally a Second World War era high altitude bomber, legendary for the damage it could endure in combat. Its durability, combined with the availability of surplus aircraft after the war, meant that B-17s were used for many post-war activities including weather survey, forest firefighting, and search and rescue.

Mountainous terrain in which the SB-17G met its untimely fate (photo T. Kristensen).

Mountainous terrain in which the SB-17G met its untimely fate (photo T. Kristensen).

Eight crew members of the United States Air Force 10th Air Rescue Squadron were aboard the SB-17G as it entered a small mountain valley. The navigator was unfamiliar with local topography and 15 seconds into the valley, the crew began adjusting power in an attempt to avoid a fast approaching valley wall. Because of its original purpose in high altitude flight, the SB-17G was not particularly maneuverable and couldn’t recover from its predicament. Stalling within meters of the ground, the left wing struck an alpine slope sending the aircraft into an arching skid path that tore through birch trees and bedrock cobbles for several hundred meters before coming to rest. The wreck was quickly consumed by flames. Five men evacuated immediately but the remaining three caught fire in their frantic attempts to depart. An heroic lieutenant escaped the wreck and pulled one man to safety while another emerged from the wreck engulfed in flames. Although he was immediately doused, the airman couldn’t recover from severe burns and died six hours later. The crew spent a somber night in the cold mountains before being rescued the next day.

Northwest Staging Route in Canada and Alaska. Yukon Archives. Department of Defence Collection, 91/37 #51, PHO 419.

Northwest Staging Route in Canada and Alaska. Yukon Archives. Department of Defence Collection, 91/37 #51, PHO 419.

The story of the SB-17G crash represents a small but significant piece of aviation history. Northern aviation assumed an international importance with the growth of the Northwest Staging Route in the 1930s. The Canadian portion began in Edmonton and linked a series of northern airstrips up to Alaska and Russia. Like Edmonton, most towns along the route were initially First Nations gathering spots that developed into fur trade posts when traders arrived. They eventually grew into agricultural, mining, forestry, or oil and gas centres. The Alaska Highway was built to connect these centres to help protect North America from a potential Pacific attack. After the war, the Northwest Staging Route remained important for military exercises (which drew the SB-17G to the Yukon) and as a transportation route to other international conflicts.

Reconstructed flight path of the SB-17G to its final resting spot (photo T. Kristensen).

Reconstructed flight path of the SB-17G to its final resting spot (photo T. Kristensen).

Given their experience on the land, First Nations people were hired as guides to help survey the Alaska Highway before construction. Consequently, much of the highway followed First Nations trails that existed for millennia. Other portions followed Gold Rush trails that started to criss-cross the north in the late 1800s. This synopsis illustrates how modern transportation systems in the north have deep histories. The interconnected travel network that now links northern towns has witnessed birchbark canoe paddlers, moccasins, Gold Rush wagons, tank treads, and jet streams.

SB-17G (S/N 44-83722) used in the US Military Air Rescue Service (photo credit 060526-F-1234S-009.jpg, National Museum of the US Air Force).

SB-17G (S/N 44-83722) used in the US Military Air Rescue Service (photo credit 060526-F-1234S-009.jpg, National Museum of the US Air Force).

B-17G-50-VE (S/N 44-8167) during in-flight high altitude bomb drop in WWII (photo credit 050610-F-1234P-011.jpg, National Museum of the US Air Force).

B-17G-50-VE (S/N 44-8167) during in-flight high altitude bomb drop in WWII (photo credit 050610-F-1234P-011.jpg, National Museum of the US Air Force).

B-17F flying fortress formation in WWII (photo credit 050615-F-1234P-006.jpg, National Museum of the US Air Force).

B-17F flying fortress formation in WWII (photo credit 050615-F-1234P-006.jpg, National Museum of the US Air Force).

SB-17G propeller and engine (photo T. Kristensen).

SB-17G propeller and engine (photo T. Kristensen).

SB-17G gear wheel (photo T. Kristensen).

SB-17G gear wheel (photo T. Kristensen).

Charred measurement tags from SB-17G (photo T. Kristensen).

Charred measurement tags from SB-17G (photo T. Kristensen).

Canister from SB-17G (photo T. Kristensen).

Canister from SB-17G (photo T. Kristensen).

Wreckage of the SB-17G overlooking the valley it was unable to climb (photo T. Kristensen).

Wreckage of the SB-17G overlooking the valley it was unable to climb (photo T. Kristensen).

Territorial and provincial heritage legislation exists to preserve the remains of historic events like the SB-17G plane crash. A research permit is required to excavate any historic resource be it a 2 million year old fossil, a 2000 year old fishing camp, or a Second World War era aircraft. Historic objects are not permitted to leave the territories or provinces unless authorized by respective governments, which means artifacts can’t be re-located without permission. This legislation has created some conflicts in the past between heritage managers and people interested in salvaging plane wrecks but positive relationships and advance communication can help ensure that aviation historians and archaeologists work together to share their passion for the past. The story of the SB-17G crash highlights the military importance of the north and the historical depth of human movement.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist & Mike Donnelly, Archaeologist.

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