Scuba divers search Canadian lakes for Harvard wrecks

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William Charles Smith was flying Harvard aircraft number 2963 on June 19, 1943, while training as a pilot in Canada.

Our country’s air space was far away from the brutality of the Second World War in Europe. He should have been safe, at least until he was ready for the war theatre. But like so many young pilots in training he would die in a crash and never see action.

He  was just 17 years old and a member of Britain’s Royal Air Force volunteer reserve pilot program. Smith was sent from Britain to a Canadian training base at Dunnville, Ontario. By mid-June he had logged 142 flying hours, split between the Tiger Moth and the more advanced Harvard.

The Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association, which is based at the Tillsonburg airport in Southwestern Ontario, keeps the trainer’s history alive by making the old planes airworthy if possible. It also flies them. Scuba divers, some of whom are members of the Harvard association, search the Great Lakes for aircraft wreckage or parts, retrieve and display them when possible.

Association member Shawn Wylie has several roles with the Harvard enthusiasts. He is the service crew chief that maintains the Harvards flown by the association pilots. He is also the group’s photographer and writer. In that capacity he wrote an interesting story on Smith’s fatal crash, which is the source for the details of the accident in this article.

Smith’s instructors viewed him as an above-average young pilot.  Flying over Lake Erie in Southwestern Ontario, Smith spotted the S.S.Canadiana, a 215-foot ferry that provided service between Canada and the United States. Two of the ferry’s passengers that fateful day were Flying Officer Ross Finlayson and Pilot Officer Joseph Swisko, both from the Dunnville base. As witnesses to Smith’s flying that day the two officers told the court of inquiry he had done several circuits around the ship, becoming progressively lower to the water. He left briefly to buzz a tanker before returning to the ferry.

This time he approached the Canadiana so low he had to pull up into a climbing turn to clear the ferry. The Harvard stalled and plunged into the lake, killing its pilot. The next morning the aircraft fuselage and the dead pilot were lifted onto a ship.

Scuba diver Paul Cachia is a member of the Harvard association’s recovery team and has been involved in locating parts of doomed aircraft. “I was part of team that surveyed it (Smith’s plane) but not the diver that found it,” he said. “There is a part of a wing, the bottom portion of it, the undercarriage (landing gear) and the radial engine, which is upright.” They will not recover parts until they get permission from the Ontario ministry of culture.

Cachia added that the plane was discovered a while back.” A couple of members of the Harvard association have done some initial searching for the recovery.

There were 3,590 Harvards produced in Canada, most of them at the Canadian Car foundry in Montreal. Pilots in training started with simpler aircraft  before advancing to the Harvard. The next step was the Hurricane and Spitfire. which became the backbone of the Second World War air defence of Great Britain.

The procedure for recovering aircraft from the bottom of a lake is complex. You need skills as a diver and some training using lift bags.  These are essentially bags filled with air (to lift up parts from the bottom).”
There is nothing to mark the site. They use a GPS loccate it. The second time out Cachia tied a line to the boat’s anchor. This enabled a search pattern. The diver swings like a pendulum around the search area with the circles becoming smaller and smaller, thereby focusing in closer and closer to the wreckage.

“I sent up a small surface marker. Once we had located the engine block I had a drawing where the parts were.”

Once recovery is approved, the lift bags will come into play. The weight of the object to be lifted will determine the size of the lift bag. Adding air to a lift bag is done slowly and is stopped when the bag is a few inches off the bottom. This prevents it from drifting away but also from rising to the surface too quickly.

Several factors come into play in deciding when to dive. In spring and fall, the water is bluer so vision is better. In summer the water is greener thus there is diminishing vision because warmer water creates more algae. The bigger factor is particulate in the water, says Cachia, adding that visibility can change  in two hours. “Rain will ruin visibility.”

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Kathy is the owner of Kirk Scuba Gear, a passionate Scuba Diver, Ocean Advocate and Managing Editor of The Scuba News Canada

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