Warning: Contains graphic information!
A RCMP underwater recovery operation has helped bring closure to families after 60 years of mystery.
On a foggy August morning in 1959, pilot Ray Gran and conservation officer Harold Thompson were flying from Buffalo Narrows to La Loche, Sask. Sometime during the flight, their Cessna 180 single-engine airplane went down over Peter Pond Lake.
Family members reported the pair missing and an extensive search began. At least five aircraft were used to investigate, but the only signs of an accident were an oil slick and a floating briefcase.
Gran, leaving behind an expecting wife, and Thompson, a new father, weren't heard from again.
But some of the mystery was settled in January when RCMP divers recovered Gran's and Thompson's remains.
"Not having to wonder anymore, that gives families closure," says Cpl. James Diemart, a Saskatchewan Underwater Recovery Team (URT) member who began co-ordinating the operation after a family-led sonar scan found the sunken plane in July 2018.
Knowing the plane's exact location made the recovery possible six decades later.
"It's unique that we were diving on a historical plane crash," says Sgt. Andy Pulo, a member of the Manitoba URT who worked on the recovery job. "Most of the plane crash dives we do are recent."
The team considered diving to the crash site during the summer, but conditions on the lake —Saskatchewan's sixth largest — proved too rough.
"The plane crashed almost in the middle of the lake and we knew it was going to be a challenge," says Cst. Peter Rhead, a member of the Saskatchewan dive team who worked on the operation. "Waves were three to four feet high. It was tough enough to anchor the boat let alone try to dive."
A remote-controlled underwater vehicle filmed the plane, but diving was postponed until winter when ice reduces the problems caused by waves and wind.
Over three days in January's -2C water, RCMP divers from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia — who often join forces — dived to the plane's underwater resting place.
Under the surface
The operation began with using sonar to locate the crash site under the ice. Once pinpointed, a chainsaw cut a 1.5-metre triangle through the thick ice layer. Tents and heaters were set up to protect divers and support staff from the -30 C air.
Despite the icy water, the divers' gear doesn't change much. The only additions are thicker dry suit underwear and glove liners.
The diving began on Day 2. Once the crew confirmed they had the right aircraft, divers connected a "down line" from the plane to the surface to guide subsequent divers. The line was important as no ambient light reached the 20-metre depths and visibility was reduced to zero when anything disturbed the silty lake bottom.
"We have flashlights on us but they don't do much in poor water conditions," says Rhead.
To ensure a safe dive, Pulo says the operation used surface-supplied air technology allowing divers to focus on the underwater job while their air was delivered via a set of hoses.
Recovery began on Day 3. Divers went under the ice in pairs allowing one to enter the plane when another stayed outside the wreckage collecting remains and mementos while watching for any signs of trouble.
"You need to know your role and have good communication because it doesn't take much for a simple dive to become a scary situation," says Rhead.
Diemert says the team laid Canadian flags upon the remains after recovery — a way to acknowledge Gran's service as a pilot in the Second World War, where he earned a distinguished flying cross, and Thompson's service as a conservation officer.
The divers also recovered personal items such as a pocket knife and camera to return to the families.
Community members volunteered to help the RCMP as they worked to find an ending to the local story. Some drove Bombardier snow vehicles bringing equipment to the dive team, a restaurant extended its hours to suit the URT's 12-hour work days, and a hotel welcomed the RCMP visitors.