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71 years gone but never forgotten: airmen, plane wreckage found on Vancouver Island

RAF pilots and crew make their way to their Avro Anson planes during the Second World War in September, 1939.

Mirrorpix/Courtesy Everett Collection

More than 70 years after a military aircraft vanished on a training mission, searchers have recovered human remains from wreckage that lay hidden in the forests of Vancouver Island, bringing solace to the families of the four men aboard.

Last October, a logging company crew found the wreckage of the twin-engine Avro Anson aircraft on a mountainside near Port Renfrew – the first time the plane had been seen since it vanished after departing Patricia Bay near Sidney on Oct. 30, 1942.

Cold, rain and snow delayed a recovery attempt until this month when a joint team from the B.C. Coroners Service and federal Department of National Defence went into the forests for four days in a carefully planned operation.

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The team of about 10 to 15 members was ready for everything from cougars and bears to radioactive material in luminescent dials on the aircraft, regional Vancouver Island coroner Matt Brown said in an interview on Friday.

The group was working in the extremely steep terrain of an old-growth forest at a site off a logging road they could reach only after a 15-minute hike. Daily challenges included the slope of the crash site and downed trees. "There were trees actually on the aircraft and new growth on top of that," Mr. Brown said.

Preplanning was the key to getting the job done, he said. "This group planned for everything – the terrain, safety, radiation – everything down to how they were going to work through the remains, who was going to be involved."

He said there were no injuries among team members during the unprecedented recovery effort.

The sole Canadian on the flight was Sergeant William Baird of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Also on the flight were three members of the British Royal Air Force: Pilot Officer Charles Fox, Pilot Officer Anthony Lawrence and Sergeant Robert Luckock.

Sgt. Baird's family expressed their gratitude Friday.

"We give our heartfelt thank you, appreciation and gratitude to the endless hours of work so many people have endured to bring closure and peace to our family," said a statement issued through the Department of National Defence.

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Through a department spokesperson, the family declined an interview to talk about the situation.

Sgt. Baird had six siblings – most now deceased along with his parents, who lived in the southeastern Alberta city of Brooks. According to an obituary of the era, Calgary-born but Brooks-raised Sgt. Baird worked in the oil fields before enlisting in the war effort. He was Brooks' first casualty of the Second World War.

The Defence Department said in a statement that work is under way with the families of the deceased and such agencies as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to hold an appropriate interment ceremony.

Mr. Brown said a DND air-crash investigator among the team members concluded the cause of the crash will never be known. "Time is a factor in not being able to put that story together to solve that mystery. That's unfortunate but certainly the recovery of the remains is a very positive note."

Mr. Brown noted that the downed plane was among several aircraft out that day in 1942 that lost radio contact within a short period of time as heavy fog settled in the area. "Are those factors? We'll never know."

He said it's possible there may be other such downed planes in B.C. About 100 aircrew died flying out of Patricia Bay during the Second World War. "I wouldn't be surprised," he said. "As I understand from the military, this is not an unusual event. We have many cases of discovered remains across the province."

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