The Ghost of the North

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Today marks the 80th anniversary of one of the greatest mysteries, tragedies and legends of Canadian aviation history. On the night of March 31st, 1930, the last garbled radio transmission was heard from the massive Royal Canadian Navy dirigible HMCD Samuel de Champlain (D was for Dirigible) as she desperately sought refuge from an Arctic blizzard that rampaged across the breadth of Northern Quebec and the Northwest Territories for more than a week. Referred to by many Northerners as "the time Hell froze over", the Great Blizzard of '30 brought about the deaths of 30 Canadian Navy airmen or "blimpers", two First Nations guides and the short and glorious period of dirigible operations in Canada.

In the small hours of the dark morning of April 1st, or perhaps any of the following 6 nights and days of frozen terror, Samuel de Champlain and her crew met a terrible end, and like Amelia Earhart 7 years later, no trace was ever found. It was thought for decades that her last resting place was beneath open water somewhere on James Bay.  For months afterward, RCAF aircraft and northern RCMP patrols scoured every square mile of forest, tundra and barrenland from Ungava Bay in the North to Fort Churchill in the West and as far south as the Laurentians. Not one sign, piece of wreckage or even story was found. Nothing. Until last summer.

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Samuel de Champlain weathercocks magnificently from her mooring ship HMCS Joseph Mufferaw in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in July of 1929. The Royal Canadian Navy had invested millions of dollars in infrastructure (support ships and bases) to create the RCNRAS (Royal Canadian Navy Rigid Airship Service) as a weapon to both deter and counter submarine threats in the shipping lanes to North America. HMCD Samuel de Champlain along with a planned four more Los Angeles class dirigibles (HMCD Louis Cyr, HMCD Georges Vezina, HMCD Daniel McGrew and HMCD Laura Secord) would be based from two newly built facilities at HMCS North Forchu on Cape Breton Island and HMCS Toutlegang on Anticosti Island. After the loss of the airship, the RCNRAS was disbanded and the Joseph Mufferaw (Big Joe to her crew) was placed back in RCN service as an oil tanker. Ironically, ten years later she would be sunk by a German U-Boat on the Grand Banks. Photo: RCNRAS Archives

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The pride of the Royal Canadian Navy Rigid Airship Service floats majestically over Montreal's harbour en route to an appearance over Ottawa in September of 1929. Photo: RCNRAS Archives

On Thursday, March 27th, 1930, while on a goodwill tour of mining sites in Northern Quebec, a Ford Tri-motor carrying seven passengers and three crew was forced down en route from St. Ciboire de Tabarnouche to Matagami. Engine trouble was compounded by radio trouble and the Ford's crew were unable to radio their position or even that they had landed safely. Unfortunately, no one knew this and given the star status of three of the passengers - Howie Morenz, La Bolduc and Guy Lombardo - every effort was made to find them when they failed to arrive at their next destination. Upon hearing of their disappearance, Prime Minister William Lyon Macenzie King asked the RCAF and the RCNRAS to coordinate the search. It was thought that employing the thirty crew members searching from every porthole aboard would be the best and most stable search platform available.

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Thankfully they were safe, but sadly 32 men were lost trying to find them. Three Canadian icons of the day were on a goodwill tour of mining sites across Northen Quebec when their aircraft was forced down on a frozen lake due to engine trouble.  Left to right: hockey legend Howie Morenz of the Montreal Canadians, Guy Lombardo (sans his Royal Canadians) and La Bolduc, the French Canadian folk singing phenom.  It was deemed absolutely critical that these three important Canadians be found at all costs. Unfortunately, the cost was indeed high. 

It took two days for Samuel de Champlain to make it to Montreal where she was quickly loaded with enough fuel and supplies to last her for four days of searching. Her commander, Commodore Morris S. Crosby (great grandfather of hockey legend Sidney Crosby), let loose all mooring lines from Ile Ste Hêlene in Montreal and turned into wind as thousands upon thousands of Quebecers waved from every rooftop, intersection, factory and farmyard along her track and wished Crosby and his 29 crew members god speed. The massive Maybach engines droned for what seemed hours against a strong northeast headwind and beat their way towards Notre Dame de Doleur Eternelle on the north shore of Lac Beegphishinapan where they were met by two of the finest Innu guides who would help them orient their search in the wilds of the north. A large mining drill rig was used as a mooring mast as the two hunters climbed aboard. The weather seemed to be holding - not great, but considering the urgency  - good enough to get at the search.

Samuel de Champlain lifted off from the Grand Trou Mine at 1440 hrs on March 30th and disappeared over the horizon - never to be seen again.  There were no reported sightings of her from that moment on, and radio contact was intermittent but strong until the early hours of the 31st when the Great Blizzard of 1930 struck the north like a sledgehammer. In 1930, weather forecasting was rudimentary at best, non-existent north of the the Laurentians and a gamble for all those who operated there. By 0630 hrs on the morning of the 31st, the winds had shifted nearly 90 degrees, now blowing up from the south east. Into this unknown lumbered the delicate behemoth.

There were but four radio transmissions received from Crosby on the 31st. At 0855 hrs only parts of a message were received "... RCN100, in distress... winds pushing us northwest at ... Maybachs [the Engine type]...trouble... ballast... ". At 1630 hrs a transmission was received, just three words were heard over the powerful static, "...ice weighing us....." Shortly after that another partial transmission was received "... uncontrolled rolling. Rudder struck at .... will make her... ".  Finally, at 2356 hrs radio operators at both Matagami and Ste. Couche Tard heard the same words: "... weighed down. Men in panic. Seven lost  at 1032 hrs... less than fifty feet... God help us live through...". And that was all that was ever heard from Samuel de Champlain and gallant her crew.

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Samuel de Champlain was a 2,472,000 cubic foot rigid airship built by the Zeppelin Company at Friedrichshafen, Germany of the same class as the USS Los Angeles. Here she rests at Lakehurst, New Jersey after her delivery to North America. Her RCN facilities were not yet complete in 1926 and Canadian crews would train with their American counterparts at Lakehurst for nearly 8 months before she even made an appearance over Canada.  Her construction was partially funded by German World War I reparations. Completed in August 1924 under the builder's number LZ-126, she departed Germany in mid-October 1926 for delivery to the Royal Canadian Navy. After a three day trans-Atlantic flight, the airship arrived at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey, where her hydrogen lifting gas was replaced with non-flammable helium. This greatly increased her safety, but also significantly reduced her payload and range. Photo: RCNRAS Archives

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When her hangar was finally completed at HMCS North Forchu, thousands came out to gawk. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was on hand to open the facility and go for a ride from North Forchu back to Halifax.  Photo: RCNRAS Archives

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In the late summer of 1929, Samuel de Champlain paid her first and only visit to Ottawa. Ottawa Journal photographer Len S. Canon accompanied the dirigible from Montreal arriving over the Nation's Capital late morning on Labour Day. She made two passes over the city from east to west and then swung south to the site of the new Ottawa airport at Uplands where just two years before Charles Lindbergh had landed. Looking down from Samuel de Champlain we see her shadow crossing the Rideau Canal, Union Station and the Parade Grounds at Cartier Square.  Photo: Ottawa Journal Archives

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HMCD Samuel de Champlain moored to a temporary mast erected at Uplands south of Ottawa. One can just make out the Parliament Buildings in the far distance.  Photo: RCNRAS Archives

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Samuel de Champlain flying over the mansions of the Village of Rockcliffe in early September, 1929. Even the rich and powerful were out on their lawns to watch her passage.

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The members of Samuel de Champlain's crew pose at HMCS North Forchu in 1929. Many of these very men would be lost among the 32 on the ill-fated search mission to Northern Quebec in the Spring of 1930. Photo: RCNRAS Archives

While the ten men and women that Samuel de Champlain was looking for were found only 30 miles from Matagami within two hours of the storm's lifting, her would-be rescuers became the new object of the search. For months afterward, the North was scoured from the air and on the ground in the search and vain hope that survivors would be found. But nothing, not one piece of her fabric skin and massive structure, telltale oil slick or human remains would ever be found. Her loss was like a knife to the heart for the RCNRAS and her disappearance was total. She became a ghost overnight.

For the eight decades since her loss, Samuel de Champlain became somewhat of a Flying Dutchman ghost story. Cree hunters as far south as La Taboggan de Jesus, Hudson's Baymen from Fort Smallpock and Inuit snowmobilers as far north as Watalotarok would sometimes hear her Maybachs howling in the night. Many have seen her ghostly shape passing across the cold northern sky on nights of high Aurora Borealis activity. For decades, this apparition has been known as Le Fantôme de Nord. Others could hear static-filled radio calls on their sets that they swore were cries for help from RCN-100 (Samuel de Champlain's call sign). Some hunters will not venture into the northern wilderness when a storm is coming, not because of the weather (which locals are not afraid of) but because it is said, on such nights when the wind blows hard from the southeast, and the snow drives horizontally, that the ghosts of Crosby, his 29 crew members and the two guides are most active. More than one hunter has gone mad when these conditions prevail.

The entire episode put such pressure on then Prime Minister King for pressing the great dirigible into service for the search, that he lost the national election just four months later. Richard Bedford Bennett, the new Conservative Prime Minister shut down the Royal Canadian Navy Rigid Airship Service by December of 1930. The construction of the four remaining airships on order from the Zeppelin Company was cancelled.  

Since the discovery last summer of the bones of Samuel de Champlain on the Northern shore of Strutton Island in James Bay, the search fever has been renewed.  Heading the search will be Vintage Wings of Canada and Les Amis des Trente-deux, a society of Samuel de Champlain researchers and self-named "blimpniks".

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It is believed that the structural elements found at the old hunting blind were similar to the framework of the ill-fated dirigible - similar to these found in the crew quarters aboard HMCD Samuel de Champlain. Metallurgic tests are being carried out by Vintage Wings of Canada.

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It is long believed that HMCD Samuel de Champlain went down in the area shown here - an area roughly 30 kilometers square. This particular channel between Fool's Island and the estuary of the Waskaganish River has been open water during winter for more than 50 percent of the years since ice conditions have been recorded and the Hudson's Bay Company outpost at Charlton Depot on Charlton Island recorded open water from late March in 1930. The RCAF conducted search flights across the North for nearly two months after her disappearance - but not one sign was ever found. Last year kayakers paddling around the north shore of Strutton Island came across an old hunting blind used by Innu hunters during Canada goose hunting season.  The nearly invisible and much deteriorated blind was made from strange alluminum structural elements and a fabric no one could identify. The kayakers took some photos and when they returned south, showed them to the RCMP.  It was determined from the images (we are not allowed to show you them) that they were part of Samuel de Champlain's unique lightweight structure. 

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A more remote and inhospitable search site cannot be found, but the Vintage Wings of Canada de Havilland Beaver floatplane and a crew will fly north to James Bay in June of this year to begin setting up a base camp for the search.

Vintage Wings of Canada has promised to fund the first search in the summer of 2010 and if enough of her wreckage is found, to transport her back home to Ottawa and rebuild this icon. As Ottawans are now searching for a suitable use for a massive exhibition building known as the Aberdeen Pavilion, agreements have been finalized to use it as a dirigible hangar. It cannot be determined how long the rebuild will take, but residents in the area are now happy that this venerable old building will be put to a suitable and historically authentic use.

D.H. Yellamo, Les Amis des Trente-deux

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The residents of Ottawa's downtown neighbourhood known as the Glebe have lobbied hard to have the Aberdeen Pavillion put to a historic use. We are pleased to announce that this massive building soon to be known as The Gothic Blimpworks will house the rebirth and daily operation of a fully restored Samuel de Champlain. Property values are expected to plummet faster than the original Samuel de Champlain  did back in 1930.

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To view a vintage news reel of Samuel de Champlain's historic visit to Ottawa in 1929, click here.

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