Friday, June 13, 2008

My grandfather's name was Bill Sealey, also known as Flight Lieutenant William James Sealey. He flew in the Royal Canadian Air Force, on the C-47 Dakota, which was the military version of the DC-3.

Here's a sample pic of a C-47, for those of you who aren't familiar.

On January 19, 1946, my grandfather's C-47 left Comox, British Columbia on a flight to Greenwood, Nova Scotia. It and its crew of seven were reported missing shortly afterwards.

Around the Crowsnest Pass, people noticed smoke coming from a nearby mountain, Mt. Ptolemy, which straddles the border of British Columbia and Alberta. Though they were guided by the smoke of the burning wreckage, it took five days for the Crowsnest Pass Forest Rangers to snowshoe to the crash site because of bad weather.

The plane had collided with Mt. Ptolemy, and fallen into the valley below. There were no survivors, so the rescue team brought the bodies out on toboggans.

The men who lost their lives were: Flying Officer Robert Huycke Watt, Flying Officer James Leonard Norris, Flight Lieutenant William Joesph Woods, Flight Lieutenant William James Sealy, Sergeant Vernon Rupert Ducklow, Leading Aircraftsman Daniel Levy and Leading Aircraftsman Richard Brockwell Lowe.

The crash left my grandmother a widow with 2 small children. She didn't even qualify for a widow's pension from the DVA (Dep't of Veterans Affairs) because Grandpa Sealey had joined as a volunteer rather than being drafted. She survived by doing housekeeping for neighbors while bringing my mother and uncle along with her. Tough times, but grandma was a tough woman and she made a go of it. She remarried a few years later and had 2 more children, and together with her second husband, the man I knew as grandpa, they built a good life together on the shore of Vancouver island, near Comox. When my mother and uncle grew older, the DVA did pay for their university tuition, along with an extra $94/month to live on while attending school. They both made the most of it, and are among the smartest people out there, so thanks to the DVA for that.

Here's a link to a youtube video made by some hikers who went to check out the site, and the wreckage. Since then, a plaque has been posted to commemorate the place where my grandfather and his flying companions lost their lives.

The part I'm interested in doesn't start until 5 minutes in.

I did a google search on "Mt. Ptolemy crash" and came up with a few links from hikers who have visited the area.

Here's a link to some hi-res photos on a guy's Flickr account.

So what happened? Unfortunately, we don't really know.

I'm taking the following quote from an email from my uncle, who has done a fair amount of research on the accident.

"On the face of it -- It seems to me there was 1) a fire or mechanical failure on board; there have been a few engine or fuel line fires in the Dakota model or similar DC-3 model of planes, and this plane did in fact burn -- possibly both before and after the hit -- or perhaps more likely 2) there was icing (according to a Environment Canada weatherman who reviewed and interpreted historical weather records for that day and for several days before and after); or 3) possibly the navigator entered a false setting on the Altimeter, which although is a common error I think is unlikely but can't be ruled out, particularly because there doesn't seem to have been an emergency call, say to Calgary, before the crash.

There was likely no suffering after the crash, as the coroner's report on the crew indicated that they hit the ridge at high speed."

It's also frustrating because the crash investigation report is missing from the official files - likely filed in another binder by mistake. The trouble is, we don't know which binder and there are thousands of them.

Ever since I was a little kid I have always wanted to be a pilot, and I like to think I get my passion for aviation from my grandfather. I wish I could have met him so we could have shot the breeze, and compared flying stories. I sometimes think about what he'd make of my corporate pilot job, with all the differences and similarities from his. The technology certainly has changed, but I bet we would have found a lot of common themes, and shared a few good laughs. I would have loved to take him up for a trip in our baby jet, to show him my world, and the earth below from 40,000 feet.

But my biggest wish is this: I hope that in the giant bucket of karma that comprises the universe, his spirit somehow knows that I am following in his contrails as I burn holes through the sky. I hope he'd approve, and every time I push the throttles forward, I hope I do him proud.


Blake said...

I'm sure you will do him proud.

Excellent story. Although it's a tragedy that your grandfather died. At least he died doing something he loved.

Matt said...

My grandfather was a flight engineer on a B-17. I can completely relate to your desire to have him around to see the world of aviation today. Luckily my grandfather was around until I was 16, but he missed my first solo by six months. Although he was gone in body, I knew that he was really riding shotgun in spirit during that first solo trip around the field.

Thank you for sharing you story.

Ian said...

Hi Sulako,
I just read your story on the Crowsnest pass crash. I am a caver, and spent many years exploring caves near Mount Ptolemy. I visited the crash site, probably around 1998, it is actually on the Alberta side of the divide, under Mount Coulthard. If you want to visit it, you need a quad or bike to get to the end of the dirt road, then about a 2 hour hike. It's written up in a book "Hiking the Historic Crowsnest Pass" by Jane Ross and William Tracy, as Hike No 35 "North York Cirque"

Adrienne said...

What a great post. Eerie looking at the wreckage.

Andy Tait said...

Knowing you made the footage of the crash site a little more personal, and eerie as one poster added. The fact that you're also a pilot and connected to this crash makes it all the easier. I can relate to your feeling however. I managed to track down my grandfather's gravesite in El Alamein where he was killed during WW2 and felt a tremendous connection although I'd never met the man. Energy never dies, and somewhere (perhaps in you), your grandfather's spirit takes great pride in you.

Anonymous said...

I have first hand information about that crash. I tried to email you, but the email line does not open.
Please post your email and I will respond to you.

John KInnear said...

John Kinnear down here in the Crowsnest Pass. I have a document you need to see . It is an assessment of what might have happened (in detail). It is by a pilot who flew the first Dakota out of Comox that day and who subsequently made it to Greenwood. It tells of why your grandfather was on that plane and not the one this pilot was flying! Bill was his co-pilot but got switched!
my email is