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Lightning Over the Hudson

We were grinding along at twelve thousand feet in cloud, minding our own business halfway between Ottawa and New York City in a North Star freighter. It was the gutted version of the passenger variant, named The Flying Merchant, stripped of everything including windows except, thankfully, the toilet which was located anywhere but cockpit convenient at the rear of the cabin.

Just before Albany there was a sudden clear break and there below us, bathed in a stray shaft of bright sunlight, cruised an unmarked all-black Second World War fighter plane, backlit by the Hudson River. It was a twin-engine Lockheed Lightning, an American fighter built in huge numbers during the Second World War, otherwise known as a P-38 or, to the Luftwaffe, as der Gabelschwanz-Teufel “fork-tailed devil”. Its graceful design was a marriage of aesthetics and function making it perhaps the most beautiful yet terrifying killing machine the Americans had ever produced.

The last thing author Jim Griffith expected to see silhouetted against the sky below when he came out of a cloud layer over the Hudson was the sinister shape of an unmarked and all-black P-38 Lightning. The shape and configuration of the Lightning is simply unmistakable. Photo montage: Dave O’Malley

But hang on! Maybe I’d better go back to the beginning of this silly serendipitous little adventure. In July 1959, I was a twenty-one-year-old, 500-hour, new-hire First Officer with Canada’s national airline, Trans Canada Airlines [eventually to become Air Canada-Ed]. Being on reserve, I’d been called out early that morning to ferry a freighter from Montréal’s Dorval airport to Ottawa Uplands to upload a cargo and deliver it to New York City’s Idlewild Airport then ferry back to Dorval.

As a newbie, during flight planning with my newly met Captain, I never questioned the iffy weather forecast for the New York area nor linked it to our fuel load which left us with no alternate airport. Neither the dispatcher nor the Captain mentioned what our cargo was to be and I never asked. The dispatcher did emphasize that our New York arrival time must absolutely be no later than 2 PM. I blithely signed my name on the flight plan and we sauntered out to the aircraft.

The flight to Ottawa was uneventful and although the Captain seemed friendly, he was quiet and seemed a little anxious. As soon as we stopped on the YOW ramp, a convoy of Brinks trucks pulled up and a TCA ramp crew began to load small but hefty packages sewn in canvas sacks about the size of a two-pound package of Velveeta cheese, all the time watched warily by the Brinks guards. A man in a suit stood at the door, noting each piece of cheese as it was loaded. It suddenly dawned on me, “thar was gold in them thar hills”, and we’d be hauling it.

Loading a Canadair North Star “Flying Merchant” at Winnipeg in the early 1950s. The scene would have been similar at Ottawa, but with the addition of wary Brinks guards. Photo via the author

Each of those 363 cheese packages was in fact 27.5 lbs of 99.99% pure gold valued at the then-pegged value of $35.00 US an ounce. Our load was worth $7 million US and, thanks to a favourable exchange rate, $7.4 million Canadian. I wasn’t to know that the gold had to get to downtown Manhattan and inside the New York Federal Reserve Bank by 4 PM sharp, at which time the vault doors slammed automatically and irrevocably shut, probably explaining the dispatcher’s apprehension about our prompt arrival time.

More sinister was the minimum fuel load with no alternate airport. With so little fuel, we could not possibly land somewhere else thus eliminating any chance that we might have been compromised into some criminal plot to steal the gold. Not that, as a $250-a-month reserve First Officer, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea, but how I would ever spend such a huge amount of gold was beyond my wildest fantasies. I did a pre-flight cabin check to ensure the cargo was secure and was surprised by its empty appearance. All the Velveeta had been neatly laid out end to end and side by side in rows flat on the cargo deck, covered over and tied down by large tarpaulins. I guessed this was meant to spread the 10,000 lbs of bullion over a wide area so as not to collapse the floor.

The Canadair North Star was essentially a Douglas DC-4 re-engined with Rolls Royce Merlin power plants. In this photograph of a North Star “Flying Merchant” cargo variant warming up at Malton around 1960, we see the classic DC-4 ovoid fuselage and dihedral wings. Missing are the familiar Pratt and Whitney R-2000 radials. The addition of the V-12 Merlins added 35 miles per hour to the cruise speed of the DC-4. Photo: David Kerfoot

Another shot of Canadair “Flying Merchant” CF-TFH warming up her Merlins at Malton around 1960. Note the “Flying Merchant” moniker on the nose of the aircraft. Photo: David Kerfoot

These thoughts were far from my mind now as I daydreamed, absently looking down at the beautiful P-38.

 “Jeez,” I said to the Captain, “there’s a Lightning down there.”

“What? Where’s the lightning?” exclaimed the Captain, craning his neck to look outside.

North Stars had no weather radar and lightning seen day or night signalled nearby thunderstorms. He was right to be concerned about thunderstorms as they could swallow even a large airliner, chew it up and spit the bits out below.

“No! No!” I said, “it’s a ‘Lockheed’ lightning. You know, a P-38, a fighter plane.”

“Where is it?” he asked worriedly, squirming to try and see out my side window.

“Down at 9 o’clock…Oh, wait a minute. Looks like he’s sliding back to six o’clock.” I casually replied.

Even I knew the six o’clock position was the favoured position for a fighter attack, explaining why the Captain seemed a little edgy. He had seven million bucks cash, virtually in his back pocket, for which he was personally and totally responsible. As for me, I hadn’t considered the audacious risks criminals sometimes take for much less booty than we were carrying, including murder, to abscond with such an easily fenced commodity as gold. In other words, I was too dumb to be worried.

He couldn’t see it so asked again, “What’s it doing now?”

“I can’t see it anymore,” said I.

“Call ATC and ask if there’s any traffic in our area,” he curtly ordered.

So I did. “New York Centre, Trans Canada Charter 15, have you got anybody else around Albany?”

“Negative Trans Canada, yours is the only target I’m painting in the Albany area. Turn right 30 degrees for radar identification,” replied the controller.

No transponders in those good old days.

Following ATC’s instructions the captain quickly cranked the cantankerous old bird into a 30 degree bank right turn, which safely engulfed us in grey woolly cloud again, making us invisible… or so we thought, but it got real dark and I knew we’d jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Suddenly… a bright flash and a simultaneous loud “Whump!”, followed closely by another flash “Whump!” The “Whumps” were loud enough to be heard over the clamorous din of the four Merlin engines. We were struck twice, not by canon fire from the Lockheed Lightning but by shafts of angry lightning from Thor, the thunder god. So instead of being sky-jacked by a surplus Second World War fighter, we’d blundered into a thunderstorm.

For the entire thirty minutes of watching the Captain heroically wrangling this cranky bucking bronco bouncing around in the violent air currents of the storm, I was silently praying that the restraining tarps were tough enough to make the bullion stay put. I had visions of 363, twenty-seven-and-half-pound gold bricks becoming misguided missiles ricocheting around the inside of the cabin.

Finally, we broke out into smooth air. I went back to check the “cheese” and was relieved to see nothing had stirred, not even a mouse. I couldn’t wait to get on the ground and get this stuff off and head home but alas, our troubles were not over.

Upon arrival in marginal weather, we were unloaded in the reverse of the procedure at YOW except this time the minders, unlike the dowdily dressed Brinks guards, were Wells Fargo Express agents in smart fatigue jackets, complete with Stetsons and carrying pearl-handled Colt 45s in open holsters. The only difference between these guys and the express riders of the Old West was that these cowboys drove armoured vans instead of stage coaches.

A smiling man in a neatly tailored suit, who was all business, rushed us into a small windowless hangar office and offered us coffee. The Captain and I thought it would be half an hour and we’d be on our way. Unfortunately as we now heard from Mr. Suit, in his polite but menacing voice, that we wouldn’t be able to leave until every single one of the 363 bars of gold was safely inside the vault of the Federal Reserve Bank. Knowing that the vault closed at 4 PM sharp—no exceptions—we figured at worst we’d be away by 4:15, meaning at most a two-hour wait. We weren’t exactly being held in custody in that airless little office but, when we started to head out the door to have a look around the airport, Mr. Suit told us to sit tight and there was no mistaking what the bulge on the chest of the well-tailored suit was. So we waited and sweated in the summer heat.

By six o’clock Mr. Suit’s smile faded as he came into the office to say that only 362 bars of gold of the 363 had arrived at the bank and we’d have to stay till it was found. He added that the Wells Fargo cow hands had been relieved of their coveted Colt 45s and put in special cells at the bank and their vans were being taken apart, virtually piece by piece. Stealing a glance over his shoulder through the open door, I noticed that young men in black overalls were swarming over our Flying Merchant like roaches on spoiled meat. We took comfort in knowing we weren’t the only suspects.

By seven o’clock, sandwiches were brought in and by eight o’clock it was starting to get dark when finally the phone rang. Mr. Suit answered it, listened for a few seconds, smiled and said we were off the hook—they’d found the missing Velveeta in the spare tire wheel well of one of the trucks… hmm I wondered. It sounded suspicious to me.

We’d been on duty for over 15 hours, exceeding both the Department of Transport duty time limitations and the collective agreement, but regulations and contract be damned, we were heading home come hell or high water right now!

Jim Griffith

Author Jim Griffith throughout a distinguished career with Trans Canada Airlines and Air Canada. Clockwise from upper left: Young Jim Griffith as an air cadet. Of this photo Griffith says, “The cadet shot was when I just joined cadets. I was 12. I got in underage because my Dad knew the CO and it allowed me to go camp at Abbotsford that summer. I was in the 177 TCA RCAC Squadron in Winnipeg and eventually won my wings on the cadet program training at the Winnipeg Flying Club. I came second in a national competition, the Tudhope Trophy. I don’t know if it’s still around or not.” Upper right: Griffith's company photo taken at age 21 when he first joined TCA with about 500 hours under his belt. Lower right: Griffith as a Boeing 727 Captain, and left, as a B727 First Officer. Photos via the author

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