Bugs, beer and elbow grease

Windsor Star reporter Doug Schmidt joined a group of local historical aircraft buffs as they ventured into the Arctic to salvage what remains of a Second World War era bomber. Here are further excerpts from his trip diary:
 
One of the Mosquito's giant Rolls Royce Merlin engines waits in the sand while... One of the Mosquito's giant Rolls Royce Merlin engines waits in the sand while crew members cram a another engine into the hold of a Twin Otter aircraft in the background
 
Day 3: July11
PELLY LAKE, N.W.T.
 
"I thought things ran a bit too smoothly yesterday," says salvage crew member Marvin Fields in his opening remark of the day.
Yesterday, marvellous progress is made in getting the two large Mosquito engines - leftovers of a fiery July 10, 1956 crash landing - out of the sand, braced and ready for lifting into the bushplane that'll take them out.
After measuring with the tape, however, Fields, the group's lifting and moving expert, consults a set of bushplane dimensions only to discover the pieces in question are too big for the Twin Otter's doorway.
The answer? Spanners, wrenches, ratchets and hours of elbow grease to remove the engines from the bent and twisted cradles that held them to the burned, wooden airframe.
The wind is strong and constant, with sand blowing into nostrils, cars, eyes and mouths, going down collars and getting into equipment and clothing.
Thankfully, there's plenty of beer mouthwash. A logistical mixup resulted in 11 cases of beer being flown in for a mere six camp residents for four or five days, fortunate considering the constant blowing dust whenever the wind isn't bringing rain.
The beerwash is satisfying, but the liquid of choice for any decent salvage crew is a full can of WD-40, the miracle spray that frees sticky mechanisms and loosens rusted parts.
Forty years of usually desert-like conditions have actually been quite forgiving with the abandoned Mosquito parts.
Human activity since the 1956 crash has been more damaging by far than the extreme Arctic weather. Clean oil still flows from disassembled parts that were left untouched, but each 1,500-horsepower Merlin engine received serious damage after one of two valve covers was removed from each.
Tim Gillies, the Windsor Mosquito group leader, says the covers were probably pried away by souvenir hunters attracted to their Rolls Royce insignia.
"Gosh, it's beautiful up here," Fields suddenly gushes in mid-sentence between sweaty attacks on the engine cradles. The cursed little mosquitoes are everywhere, but they can't detract from the stunning setting of the crash scene. Perched atop a huge, 40-metre high finger of sand, the view stretches south over the wide Back River basin of lakes and barrenlands to the horizon clear in the distance.
By early-afternoon, a Ptarmigan Airways Twin Otter, sporting fat tundra tires, lands on the bumpy, sandy airstrip to make the first of several two-tonne pickups of Mosquito bits.
After much effort, two heavy Merlins are squeezed, angled and wedged aboard, completing the most difficult segment of their Windsor-bound journey - subject, of course, to the plane actually being able to take off.
"Now you can tell your pilot friends you've flown a Rolls Royce Merlin - two of them," Randy Cyr one of the Windsor salvagers, cries to the departing pilots above the deafening drone of the fired-up Twin Otter's propellers.
We see a huge Arctic hare, so big it's even guessed to be a caribou at first glance. Yes, it's been a long, long day.
Following a dinner of hamburgers with fresh mosquito toppings, it's 2 a.m. and still bright daylight when we retire for the evening.
 
Day 4: July 12
PELLY LAKE, N.W.T.
 
Everyone and everything in Canada's North has a tale to tell, usually a few too many.
Turns out our chartered Twin Otter flown by pilot Forrest Miller and copilot Stace Tumoth is itself a salvage job. It crashed into and then was dug out of a steamy Amazon jungle, sent back to Canada, refurbished for $1.8 million and put back to work in the Arctic. When it got its latest Paintjob, workers discovered the aircraft (call sign C-FTJJ) was carrying spare parts culled from more than two dozen other planes, leading company flyers to re-dub it "C-F Twisted Jungle Junk."
With the big bits - two Merlin engines, disassembled propellers, radiator - safely out of the sand, the mission now turns to sifting through four decades of sand to see what other Mosquito treasures might lie below.
Working as carefully as if we were on the trail of prehistoric bones, we dig up such gems as a landing gear and the plane's round, steel navigation table. When not looking for Mosquito remains, the salvage crew is busy with the bread and butter work that has helped underwrite the cost of this Arctic adventure.
More than 400 45-gallim drums litter the Pelly lake airstrip, the busy homebase of a group of northern aerial mappers during a three-year period in the 1950s. The drums are filled with stale mixtures of jet and diesel fuels, gasoline, oils and tar. Yellowknife environmental consultant Paul Squires, in on this trip with the Windsor group, has a federal contract to fly out any leftover liquids for disposal before the steel drums disintegrate and leak their toxic loads.
The prevailing north winds have switched to easterlies, bringing cooler temperatures and an indication bad weather is coming.
On the horizon, streaks of rain and something new to us all, vertical rainbows - prism shafts of light that go from a single point in the landscape straight into the sky, never bending back down.
 
Wednesday: Conclusion: A mission impossible, rain, rain, rain and an emergency Arctic exit.
 
This article copyright the Windsor Star 1996. I have tried to contact the Windsor Star in an effort to get permission to use this article in the web, but have not had any reply.
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