Mossie Down

 
It's 6:00AM, July 10th 1956, at Pelly Lake in the NorthWest Territories, 500 miles north of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border at the 66th parallel, which is 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle. A silvery Spartan Air Services De Havilland Mosquito, mark 35, CF-HMR, takes off from the crude sandy airstrip with pilot Al MacNutt, navigator Vince Kluke, and camera operator Barry Cox on board for another four-hour mission of contract aerial survey duty. Smoothly throbbing Rolls Royce Merlin 113/114 supercharged engines of 1535 hp each smartly propel the beautiful aircraft up to 30,000 feet and some 300 miles to the west of Pelly Lake. Levelling off for a cruise of 355 mph, everything seemed normal and routine.
Several long photo survey legs were completed without incident. At 8:55 AM, Al MacNutt noticed a slight drop in the port engine oil pressure. An experienced pilot, MacNutt was not overly concerned at first, since, as he later recalled "everything else in the cockpit seemed normal". Nevertheless, he asked Kluke to give him a heading for base and began a decent. Several minutes later MacNutt noticed a more definite fluctuation in oil pressure on the port engine. He reduced the power on the engine, pushing in the feathering button and turning off the boost pump. Still no sweat because the Mosquito was known for its excellent single-engine performance in this type of situation.
"The feathering system started to function normally, the rpm dropped to 1,000, and then suddenly increased to a very high rate. I went from a feathered prop with an engine ticking over slowly... right into an absolutely flat pitch! The aircraft turned 90 degrees in seconds, a terrifying experience." (Asymmetric drag caused the aircraft to lurch violently to the left) "The port prop changed speed so quickly, it sheared the rivets that held the spinner on. The spinner continued forward for about six feet during the yaw and then came right back as the aircraft flew into it- hitting the propeller, deflecting off and then damaging the port drop tank." Al said. "It was very frightening to sit there a few feet away from it."
A few minutes later at 9:00AM, Al MacNutt had problems aplenty. Oil pressure had dropped to zero on the bad engine and the tachometer broke, but it was apparent that the prop was windmilling at a high rate of speed because of the alarming amount of noise and the torque being produced. All switches were shut off and repeated attempts to feather the port engine were made. Soon after, pieces of metal were seen punching through the inboard cowling, leaving a gaping hole, through which flames and smoke began to pour.
Al was puzzled that the fire warning light had not come on, but pushed the fire extinguisher button, and warned his crew to prepare to abandon ship. The flames soon died out but smoke continued to pour from the port engine. The Mosquito was back under control, but barely. Al was now concerned about Barry Cox, his camera operator. In case of a wheels-up landing, Cox might be trapped inside the aircraft because his access door was in the lower rear fuselage. Also, Al felt things were going so badly that the Mosquito might blow up any minute. MacNutt decided to order Cox to bail out. Knuke was asked if he wanted out too. Knuke decided that this might be a good idea under the circumstances. Cox released his door in the rear fuselage and went out, then Kluke jettisoned the lower nose hatch and followed. Al MacNutt then dropped his underwing fuel tanks and dumped all of his internal fuel except for about 50 gallons. He had full power on the starboard engine, and needed full starboard rudder and about half aileron to keep the Mosquito reasonably straight.
"I prepared to bail out", MacNutt recalled, "but it wasn't that simple, the minute I let go of the controls, the aircraft rolled, it took brute strength to hold it level. As soon as I left the controls to reach the bottom hatch, the aircraft rolled upside down. I tried this two times only to be left banging around the cockpit and losing 5,000 feet each time. There wasn't much altitude left. The safest thing was to fly, I had no other option."
Why did McNutt not try to exit through the jettisonable escape hatch in the upper canopy?
The pilot's manual for the mosquito says to use the nose hatch for parachuting rather than the canopy hatch. With one fan already out and so far from home base, MacNutt might have been understandably reluctant to shut down the other engine. The pilot's manual recommends that the canopy hatch only be used when the aircraft and its engines have stopped. His decision to ride the aircraft down to the ground is likely correct.
MacNutts headset and all of the maps had been sucked out of the open nose hatch. On top of this the automatic direction finder (ADF) had stopped working. Navigating in the far north is not easy at the best of times because of compass unreliability and lack of recognizable landmarks. After all of his wild manoeuvring, he was not exactly sure of where he was. AL took up a heading of 150 degrees, figuring he would cross the Black River and could then turn left, following it to the south of Pelly Lake. He managed to get the aircraft stabilised at 4,000 ft and 140 knots. He had been as low as 2,500ft. The temperature on the good engine was high but it was holding at 12 lb's of boost and 2850rpm. He had an operable morse code key and was able to send a C/W message to Pelly Lake. The port prop was still screaming at about 5,000rpm, and molten metal began to pour out of the hole in the nacelle. Eventually Al spotted the Black River and nursed his crippled machine home.
"When the runway was sighted" Al recalls, "I lined up with the long runway and as I approached, I attempted to lower the landing gear, the green lights did not come on, nor was increased drag noticed. The flaps also failed to function, a belly landing was imminent."
Meanwhile on the ground, Spartan aircraft engineer Sydney Baker was quickly summoned to the radio room. There he learned that Mosquito CF-HMR was approaching with one engine on fire and that at least Cox had bailed out. Baker grabbed all available fire extinguishers, piled them into a jeep and headed to the airstrip. Once there he heard the high pitched sound of a high revving engine and spotted the low flying Mosquito trailing smoke. Near the end of the runway Baker saw the canopy being jettisoned. Baker recounts "the plane came in for normal belly-landing and stopped quickly in the soft sand. I observed the pilot leaving the aircraft via the escape hatch created above him by the jettisoning of the canopy. He ran clear as we arrived a few seconds later. There were no flames but MacNutt advised us to stand clear as fire and explosion were probable."
Subsequently, according to Sid Baker, "thing happened so quickly, there wasn't time to employ the fire extinguishers". Within minutes the Mosquito was on fire, but with little fuel onboard the fire subsided in about 20 minutes. The metal was still hot and so a bulldozer was used to push the remains to the edge of the strip and then cover it with sand. The two men who bailed were spotted three hours later and picked up by floatplane.
 
In June of 1996 The Windsor Mosquito Bomber Group recovered the remains. The area receives between one and two inches of rain annually and the parts are in good condition. The first major project will be the reconstruction of the main plane in late summer of 1998.
 
Story courtesy of Norm Malaney, via The Windsor Mosquito Bomber Group.