Barilko's plane finally arrives home

The undisturbed wreckage at the Bill Barilko/Henry Hudson crash site 80 km north of Cochrane, Ont.,...

The undisturbed wreckage at the Bill Barilko/Henry Hudson crash site 80 km north of Cochrane, Ont., Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011. (Ken Pagan/QMI Agency)

KEN PAGAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:40 PM ET

COCHRANE, Ont. -- Sandra Cattarello, 71, is resting against a fallen tree perhaps sheared by the single-engine floatplane — now scattered before her eyes — which carried her cousin 60 years ago.

It is a well-deserved rest. She just completed a challenging two-hour trek through more than a kilometre of deep muskeg and thick spruce forest in cold wind and rain.

Cattarello came to the middle of remote bush 80 km north of Cochrane on a once-in-a-lifetime excursion with 15 others. She has just finished leading the group in prayer, honouring the two men who died here in 1951.

The first family member to ever visit the crash site, tears roll down her cheek as she speaks of the pain her family endured with the tragic loss of her cousin, Bill Barilko.

“It’s very sentimental and I’m glad I came,” Cattarello says, her voice quivering. “It’s very sad. I was 11 years old when this happened and we often wonder how his hockey career would have gone.

“For the family, it was quite amazing when they did finally make the discovery of the plane. For his mother, it was very good, because we were able to bring closure to it. Today is very significant and yet, it’s sad.”

As an 11-year-old in September 1951, Cattarello gathered each day with family and friends at Porcupine Lake, waiting for the 24-year-old Barilko to return home from a fishing trip near the James Bay coast with Timmins dentist Henry Hudson.

Barilko, at the height of his fame after his overtime goal won the Stanley Cup for the Toronto Maple Leafs four months earlier, was due to return on a stormy Sunday evening, Aug. 26, 1951.

But the yellow, single-engine Fairchild piloted by Hudson never arrived. Barilko and Hudson simply vanished.

Their disappearance sparked the largest aviation search in Canadian history, involving 38 Royal Canadian Air Force planes and 270 personnel, extending into October 1951.

“We’d go down to the lake on our bicycles to meet the planes coming in,” says Cattarello, whose father, Carlo, was one of Barilko’s first hockey coaches. “At the time, we really thought maybe they stopped at a lake somewhere and they would be found.”

The plane’s wreckage wasn’t discovered until June 7, 1962 — six weeks after the Leafs won their next Stanley Cup — bringing an end to a mystery that had gripped all of Canada.

The skeletal remains of Barilko and Hudson, still strapped into the seats, were recovered and laid to rest, providing some closure for heartbroken family and friends.

But the plane’s wreckage remained untouched in the remote forest for 60 years, even though there were requests from aviation museums.

Until Oct. 16, 2011.

Shortly before 10 p.m., in another solemn ceremony, the Barilko/Hudson plane arrived home to Porcupine Lake.

* * *

One of few remaining family members from Barilko’s generation, Cattarello was a central figure among the group of 16 who made the journey to the crash site. (Barilko’s sister, Anne Klisanich of Toronto, now 81, was not able to come.)

The excursion, co-ordinated by Expedition Helicopters of Cochrane, was intended to bring in some surviving family and friends before wreckage was hoisted out of the site.

Why bring home the plane?

Aside from “bringing the last of Billy home,” according to Bill Hughes, a businessman and former WHA goalie who financed the excursion, it is about Northern pride and preserving an important piece of history.

With a Timmins Sports Heritage Hall of Fame in the planning stages for the city’s 2012 centennial, there are plans to create a Barilko exhibit to preserve, celebrate and convey the Barilko story to future generations.

Hockey in Timmins and throughout Northern Ontario is on the decline and perhaps the Barilko story can restore some Northern pride.

Hall of Fame committee chairman Wayne Bozzer was part of the excursion, while Timmins videographer Kevin Vincent captured the day from start to finish for a documentary, alongside historical author Richard Buell.

“This is all part of what we hope to accomplish as far as planting the seed, where kids coming out of Northern Ontario feel good about coming out of Northern Ontario,” Hughes, a Kirkland Lake native, said in a heartfelt address to the group at the crash site. “I think the North does something to us and I know it’s good.

“And Bill Barilko exemplified that with a Northern spirit he carried with him famously. Hopefully, through telling our stories and the stories of people in our past, we will affect in a positive way the kids coming out of Northern Ontario.”

* * *

Getting to the wreckage is not easy. Expedition Helicopters pilot Chad Calaiezzi started out in Cochrane with a group of five that included Timmins Mayor Tom Laughren.

Two other groups of five are shuttled in from Island Falls, the nearest point accessible by road, 21 km to the southwest.

There is a reason it took 11 years to discover the wreckage and another 43 years before the site was marked and protected during a separate excursion in 2005 — this is very rough, thick terrain.

Once all 16 are assembled in a cleared swamp area more than a kilometre away, Calaiezzi uses GPS to guide the group to the wreckage.

It is a two-hour struggle through the bush. With every step, each foot sinks several inches into the soft, sometimes knee-deep muskeg. It is the type of frontier in which voices are required to locate a person five metres away, even in broad daylight.

The Northern elements are also harsh, with Mother Nature delivering swirling winds, blowing rain and light snow in a 90-minute span.

Six of the group of 16 carry an axe or hatchet to clear a path.

Archie Chenier, 86, a friend of Hudson and a frequent passenger in the same plane, uses a Sher-Wood hockey stick as a cane.

Retired Timmins dentist John Shaw, 77 — who eventually took over Hudson’s dental office and ultimately spearheaded this final excursion because of his great interest in the story — shares experiences from his first trek in 2005, when the site was marked and protected with officials from the Tembec forestry company.

Calaiezzi is the first to reach the wreckage.

One pontoon sticks out of the ground at an angle, leaning against a tree. The other is in pieces. The engine is only partially imbedded in the ground, surrounded by twisted pieces of frame. Some well-preserved yellow fabric is still visible.

It appears the plane crashed facing northeast, perhaps a death spiral down to earth after running out of gas in 45 mile-per-hour headwinds.

Archie Chenier can share a few theories about that.

* * *

Chenier accompanied Hudson on many similar fly-in fishing trips, living through his own scares in Hudson’s plane.

A few summers before the Barilko crash, Chenier and Hudson had a close call in the same area, running out of gas approaching Cochrane. Chenier urged Hudson to put the plane down on Lillabelle Lake, and the plane sputtered out of gas on the approach.

In 1949, shortly after takeoff from Hudson’s cottage on Lake Temagami, the engine burst into flames and Chenier helped Hudson put the plane back down safely.

Chenier was supposed to be Hudson’s passenger on the ill-fated trip in August 1951, but had to back out because of work.

Hudson had to find someone to take Chenier’s place, someone who had the weekend off. He found Barilko, who had one more weekend of summer before heading back to Toronto for Leafs’ camp.

Barilko had never flown in Hudson’s plane.

Chenier said Hudson was a brave pilot who would have benefited from having a voice of reason alongside him.

“He had no fear in his conscience when it came to judgment while flying,” Chenier said in a recent interview. “I claim, had I been on the trip, and with the storm clouds they described, I might have said, ‘Henry, let’s sit it out for awhile.’ Because he listened to me. Why he did, I don’t know.”

* * *

When all 16 have reached the site, Shaw consecrates the area in honour of the two men who died here.

After Cattarello leads the group in prayer, many take time to themselves, coming to grips with the surreal surroundings.

Soon, one group of seven begins the return journey through the bush, which will be a three-hour hike.

Others, including Laughren, Timmins’ workhorse mayor, prepare some wreckage to be lifted out. Within the hour, Calaiezzi returns with the helicopter and long line, hoisting out the pontoons and dropping the load at Island Falls. He returns an hour later to lift out the engine and other wreckage.

“The whole expedition’s been amazing,” Cattarello says before leaving the site. “It’s nice the way they did the ceremony here and it would be nice if they can have this in a museum.”

* * *

By sundown, a flatbed trailer is loaded with wreckage at Island Falls, but there is one final stop.

Mike Mitchell, a former Porcupine Minor Hockey volunteer, and Mike Mulryan, a longtime Timmins coach, bring the floats to a boat launch at Porcupine Lake, completing the plane’s intended journey.

Mitchell backs the flatbed down to the water as Mulryan and Shaw pour cups of water over the pontoons.

The water is poured from Tim Hortons coffee cups.

It was Horton, from Cochrane, who eventually replaced Barilko on the Maple Leafs blueline in 1952, helping the Leafs win four more Stanley Cups.

Who knows how things would have turned out if Barilko, already with four Stanley Cups at age 24, had arrived at Porcupine Lake on Aug. 26, 1951?

The Hudson/Barilko plane finally made it home on Oct. 16, 2011.

The 16 who took part in the excursion, ranging from age 36 to 86, did so because they share the same Northern spirit that Barilko came to define.

They hope their efforts will ensure Barilko’s story will endure and inspire.


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