Sask. Aviation Museum exhibit celebrates ‘profound’ recovery of plane that crashed decades ago

An exhibit more than 60 years in the making was unveiled at the Saskatchewan Aviation Museum this weekend to open the final chapter on a storied piece of Saskatchewan history.

On Aug. 20, 1959, pilot Ray Gran and conservation officer Harold Thompson left Buffalo Narrows on a Cessna 180 CF-JDO float plane towards La Loche. Shortly after takeoff, the pair encountered heavy fog and crashed into nearby Peter Pond Lake.

For the next 59 years, the mystery of the missing plane fascinated locals, history buffs and aviation experts across the world.

“I actually went to work in that same community seven years after this accident and I heard all kinds of conspiracy theories,” said Dorrin Wallace, the exhibit project manager.

“People love mysteries and this has been an ongoing mystery for over 60 years. To solve it after all this time, it piques people’s interest.”

In 2018, family members of Gran’s sought help from various experts to locate the wreckage. RCMP recovered human remains the following winter and in March 2019, using help from local communities and the Saskatchewan Aviation Museum, the plane was lifted from the bottom of the lake.

Saturday marked the plane’s final journey. After a fundraising campaign, the plane was rebuilt and put on display as part of the “CF-JDO 1959 Memorial Exhibit.”

Gran’s wife Marcella was only a couple of months pregnant with their daughter when he went missing. That daughter, Linda Kapusta, made the trip from Toronto to see the plane polished and refurbished, with more than 100 dignitaries, interested onlookers and pilots from across the province on hand to hear the personal stories and see the plane during a two-hour panel discussion.

“Our goal was just to find the plane,” Kapusta said. “That’s all we had hoped for.”

“We always thought about it. We never knew how to proceed.”

Mike Fletcher was the diver tasked with going in to find the plane in 2019. Being from Port Dover, Ont., Fletcher had never seen so much ice on a lake.

“It was this thick. And it was covered in snow, so there was very little natural light. Especially no light at 60 feet where the plane was. So it was dark, extremely dark, not clear at all, (and) the plane was upside down,” he said, remembering the dive that brought the plane to the surface.

Fletcher has been involved in professional dives across the world to recover lost aircraft and boats, but this experience was special because of the way it brought everyone together.

“There was this unbelievable element of goodwill,” Fletcher said. “People coming together from all different groups. It was profound, it was a spiritual event.”

Kapusta arrived in Saskatoon wearing her father’s wedding ring recovered from the wreckage on her necklace. When the plane was pulled from the frozen waters in 2019, a local elder who was part of the search party found it on the edge of the wing.

Kapusta never got to meet her father. But after decades of efforts and three years of pandemic delays, Kapusta and her husband de ella Don gave the storied plane a proper unveiling.

“I remain astounded,” Kapusta said. “Growing up in Saskatoon with myself and my mother, it was our story. And we just didn’t know beyond the family that anybody would have any interest in this. So this is amazing and astounding that so many people came out to lend their support, their help, their expertise and knowledge to get to this point today.”

Linda’s husband Don, who resurrected the search and sought sonar expert Garry Kozak to locate the plane, thanked the tireless efforts of First Nations leaders, aviation experts and everyone involved in getting the 1959 Cessna to the museum.

“This really is a story of everyone coming together from the very beginning,” he said. “It took a team. It just was a crowning jewel on a very difficult journey for two or three years.”

Wallace said a non-fiction book written by Victoria Hetherington titled “Into The Mist: Finding CF-JDO” will launch at the museum in August.

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