Skip to main content

Retired Air Force Captain Robert Reid stood at the base of what he has always called Killer Mountain yesterday, and with a hand gnarled by skin grafts pointed to where his Albatross search-and-rescue aircraft crashed 40 years ago.

"Right there," he said pointing to a bleak stretch of rubble at the edge of a landslide chute. "Most of the aircraft is still on the mountain. When the sun comes out it glitters. You can still see bits of aluminum shining. It never rusts."

And neither, it seems, does his memory.

"Standing here, it does seem just like yesterday," Mr. Reid said as he waited for members of his old unit, 442 Search and Rescue Squadron, to arrive for a memorial service at the Hope Slide viewing platform.

On April 23, 1966, he was on a routine training flight on a twin-engine flying boat that was affectionately known as "the Albert."

Mr. Reid, who turned 65 yesterday, was the navigator on the search-and-rescue aircraft, which was one of a fleet of four Albatrosses based at Comox, on Vancouver Island. He flew "all over the province" and into the Arctic on rescue missions.

On that day, as navigator, he was seated at his work station under the port wing. With him were Flight Lieutenants Pete Semak and Phil Montgomery, Flying Officer Chris Cormier, Leading Aircraftman Bob MacNaughton and Squadron Leader James Braiden, who was a passenger on the flight.

All aboard, save for Mr. Reid, would die when the plane got trapped in low clouds and flew into the mountain above Hope Slide, a massive field of rubble that sweeps down to the highway, just east of Hope, about 140 kilometres from Vancouver.

Mr. Reid, who after the military become a professor of law at the University of British Columbia, said it had been a routine flight until they entered the mountains,and ran into heavy clouds. Then he heard an urgent call for "max power" and felt the Albatross surge forward and begin to bank sharply.

"I knew we would never be able to turn in that [narrow]valley," Mr. Reid said. "When I looked out the window I saw the wing was cutting off treetops and I instantly knew I was going to die."

For a brief moment he hoped the pilot might be able to land on the mountain, but then one of the wings hit rock and his whole world came apart in a moment of cataclysmic violence.

In a story he wrote so that his granddaughter, Emma, would understand what he survived, he tells it this way: "Just then, the plane dug deeper into the rocks and started to break up.

"The impact forced my face into the radarscope. My last conscious thought was of my nose and eyeglasses breaking. The aircraft was then torn apart on the mountain. . . . When I came to, I was standing up, my left arm resting on a large boulder; I was enveloped in a white, misty fog with visibility limited to a few feet. I was alone -- the aircraft and the others were not there.

"I was floating in space and I thought I was dead."

Looking up at the site of the crash yesterday, Mr. Reid said he recalled thinking he wasn't in heaven and worried "that guy with the horns" might soon step out of the fog to lead him away.

Then a part of the aircraft exploded nearby and he realized he was, miraculously, still alive.

That's when he looked down and saw that his flight uniform, from his neck to his ankles, had been torn into tatters and his exposed skin was raw. He didn't feel any pain but had a sensation that his stomach contained a ball of ice.

Mr. Reid shouted to his friends, but no one answered.

Several hundred metres below, two people who had stopped at the Hope Slide viewing spot had heard the plane crash in the clouds and then heard the faint voice of a survivor. They raced back toward Hope to get help.

Mr. Reid said he stumbled down the mountain, stopping at one point to stretch out on a log to rest.

"That's the only time I really became afraid," he said. "I knew if I passed out there I would die."

Eventually he stumbled out of the trees and collapsed on the roadside. Soon a car stopped and shortly after that RCMP Corporal Lorne Weme, who had been on highway patrol when flagged down by the two people from the viewing site, arrived and raced him to the hospital in Hope.

Mr. Reid was in intensive care for six weeks, then underwent years of plastic surgery to repair the skin damage received from burns over 70 per cent of his body. His ears had to be completely rebuilt.

Mr. Reid said an investigation of the crash failed to determine why the aircraft had been flying so low that day. And nobody was ever able to explain how it was that he managed to walk away.

He believes it was a miracle of timing, in which a fireball from a ruptured fuel tank blew him out a hole that had just been ripped in the side of the aircraft.

"The force of the fireball countered the forward momentum of the aircraft so that I was not smashed to bits by the force of hitting the rocks on the mountain."

Every five years, Mr. Reid, a few friends, family and members of 442 Squadron return to the site for a memorial service.

Those who die in the service of their country should never be forgotten, he said.

And he himself has never forgotten the miracle on that day that gave him a second chance at life.

"I still to this day consider myself one of the most fortunate men alive," said Mr. Reid, who married, had children and went on to a distinguished career at UBC.

"I have tried to do as that movie, Saving Private Ryan -- I tried to lead a good life," said Mr. Reid, who yesterday marked the occasion in grey slacks, polished black shoes and a blue blazer with a military college patch embroidered with the words: "Truth-Duty-Valour."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe