After 45 years, the mystery of Flight 21 still lingers

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”, a pilot’s voice cried out over the radio on the afternoon of Thursday, July 8, 1965.

Far below, a witness watched in horror as the tail of the passenger aircraft separated and the debris — which included tiny, falling dots which the witness learned were passengers sucked out of the decompressing cabin — fell to earth.

From far away, air traffic controllers watched helplessly as the aircraft disappeared from their radar screens.

Evidence would show that someone had set off a bomb in the plane’s rear lavatory.

It was not a crime that happened in a troubled Third World country, nor to an airline associated with a dictatorial regime, nor on a prestigious route on which a bombing would get maximum media attention.

It happened right here in Canada, on a domestic flight from Vancouver to Prince George, B.C.

At 2:42 p.m. on July 8, 1965, Canadian Pacific Air Lines Flight 21, a DC-6B nicknamed Empress of the City of Buenos Airesregistration CF-CUQ –took off from Vancouver International Airport with Capt. John Steele at the controls. Five other crew members and 46 passengers were aboard this flight.

It was supposed to be a routine milk run through a series of isolated northern towns. The first stop would be at Prince George, followed by stops at Fort St. John, Fort Nelson and Watson Lake before concluding the trip at Whitehorse, Yukon.

Nothing seemed amiss for most of the first leg of the journey. The plane followed its flight plan route for about 45 minutes before changing course slightly to minimize turbulence.

At about 3:40 p.m., nearly an hour after taking off from Vancouver, the routine pattern of air traffic control communications was broken by a voice calling out “Mayday!” three times.

At the same time, a witness watched from the ground as the aircraft disintegrated in midair and crashed in a sparsely populated area, inhabited mainly by loggers and ranchers, about 30 kilometres west of 100 Mile House, B.C. There were no survivors.

Two Winnipeg residents were among the victims, listed on the passenger manifest as a Mr. and Mrs. Covello of 866 Borebank St. in River Heights.

Investigators would later find traces of potassium nitrate and carbon — the ingredients of gunpowder and stumping power — in the wreckage in the vicinity of the airplane’s rear lavatory, and tiny bits of shrapnel buried everywhere. Evidence of pre-crash damage to pipes and a bulkhead, and of a hole in the side of the fuselage, left investigators certain that they were dealing with a case of mass murder, not an accident.

Who would do such a thing, and why?

To this day — 45 years later — no one knows for sure.

The investigation would focus on four people.

One was a 40-year-old unemployed man who purchased $125,000 worth of flight insurance ($864,000 in 2010 dollars) less than half an hour before departure, naming his wife, daughter, mother and neice as beneficiaries. He was reportedly on his way to Prince George to go to work at a pulp mill, but when RCMP visited all of the pulp mills in the area, no one knew of the man or of any job offer.

Another was a 54-year-old passenger who had extensive experience working with explosives and who had been charged with a 1958 Vancouver murder. His reason for being on the flight was at least known, however: he was travelling on business using a ticket purchased for him by a construction firm.

A 29-year-old was also on his way north to accept a job offer. The one thing that did stand out to investigators was that he owned a considerable amount of gunpowder, the substance that investigators believe was used to blow up Flight 21. Four 11-ounce tins from his collection couldn’t be accounted for.

Finally, the least likely passenger to come to investigators’ attention was an accountant who had recently been involved in an audit of a failed financial services firm. Rumours circulated that he had been murdered because of potential far-reaching implications of what he knew, but the RCMP later discounted this theory.

In 1965, it would have been easy to bring weapons and explosives on to a passenger airliner. Security checkpoints weren’t established in the nation’s airports until the early ’70s, when a rash of hijackings finally forced change on the industry.

At the time, passengers simply checked in, walked to the gate and boarded the flight uninspected. Anything that could be brought on board a transit bus could be just as easily brought aboard an airliner. Airports had a less visible security presence than a modern-day shopping centre. The perception that flying was only for the well-to-do reinforced the feeling of complacency.

Forty-five years later, the case remains not only unsolved, but also largely forgotten. The only Canadian-linked aviation bombings that most Canadians have ever heard of were the two bombings believed to have been carried out by Sikh extremists in 1985, of an Air India 747 en route from Canada to India via the U.K. and, on the same day, of a baggage handling area at Tokyo’s Narita Airport by a bomb hidden in a suitcase that had just been taken off a CP Air flight. The bag in question was supposed to be transfered to another Air India flight.

Few have ever heard of Canadian Pacific Flight 21, or of a Canadian Pacific C-47 which was bombed out of the skies over Quebec in 1949 by a man who wanted to kill his wife so that he could collect the insurance money and marry his mistress.

The wreckage of Flight 21 still sits in the B.C. woods, a little over a kilometre east of what appears to be an isolated logging road. One man who hadn’t forgotten ventured out to the site some time back, where he found momentos left at the site by family members, who also haven’t forgotten.

Pictures from his expedition can be found on Flickr.

After so many years, perhaps it is time — if DNA testing will permit — to finally resolve who brought down Flight 21.

Additional Sources:

Edmonton Journal, July 8, 1995

Reading Eagle, July 12, 1965

Ellensburg Daily Record, July 9, 1965

About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

17 Responses to After 45 years, the mystery of Flight 21 still lingers

  1. mrchristian says:

    Thanks for this !

    You’re right, I had never heard of it. 45 years ago means that there must be family members of those murdered still alive today.

  2. Mike says:

    Great post, and a very interesting story!

  3. theviewfromseven says:

    Thanks, Mike and Christian!

  4. sandra koleszar says:

    Great post, thanks for sharing.I have a few pictures of this crash site from when I went up to Dog Creek in July 1995. My father was killed in this crash. He was on his way to work.He was a miner. I was only 6 years old.He left behind my Mom and 5 children. We miss him dearly.
    Take care Sandra

  5. robert smithers says:

    My aunt and uncle, Listed as Mr. and Mrs Covello from Winnipeg were on the way to my fathers,Ken smithers, funeral. My grandparents lost the last of their 3 children that day.

  6. ivan covello says:

    I also lost my Aunt and Uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Covello of Winnipeg. We had lunch together that day, then dropped them off at YVR. …within a couple of hours, they were gone … I was 8 years old …so sad.

  7. McCann says:

    I too lost my father on flight 21,,,he was only 51 years old and our family has missed him all our lives…my mother and two of my brothers are gone now also…there has never been any closure…I tried to get someone interested in 1985 but like you say no one remembers or cares..CBC was only ever interested in the Air India disaster…you’d think that a family member of one of the three or four suspects would have fought to find out the truth…one can’t even find the case in any cold files………………alas……………………

  8. bob fearn says:

    I remember this tragedy as I was involved in aviation at the time. I went on to become an Air Canada pilot and retired some years ago. Like many others I think more should be done to determine the cause and also a memorial should be erected somewhere. All of this is much more likely to happen if the people who have been affected or are interested in this crash get together and decide what they would like to do. If you want to email me I will compile this contact information and try to bring us together. Best regards,

  9. Ruth says:

    We went yesterday out to the crash site. It was such a haunting, surreal feeling. It seems a crime that it has been forgotten and that so many families will never have closure. I hope in my lifetime the mystery will be solved.

  10. doris lebel says:

    my grandmother, doris harris, was killed (murdered) in this crash. she was on her way to visit us in prince george. she had travelled from halifax. she was killed on her birthday and we were all waiting for her to get to prince george for a birthday celebration. i was 14 years old and every detail of the whole incident is still vivid and horrifying in my mind. we got no assistance from the airline, no information regarding the investigations, no answers ever. i happened on a site and only learned this year that there is a memorial site. i hope by visiting it as soon as i can i will feel some peace and closure. thank you for posting your comments and photos. doris calgary

  11. Hi Doris, I noticed we live in the same city.
    My aunt (Barbara Seeliger) died in this crash. I will be visiting the site in May 2013, for the first time. Have you had an opportunity yet to visit the site?

  12. Didi says:

    I lost my father (Wallace Emo) when I was 5 . He was 33 yeras old and left behind a wife and 3 small children. An event that impacted our lives irrevocably.
    I live in 100 Mile House now, and visit the crash site annually, and have had the privilege of taking other people there,… it never fails to move me .
    There are plans in progress to erect a memorial by the OHM airport, and we would love more input from members of the famiiles.
    To this end I have created a community Facebook ( C.P. Flight 21) page so we can connect and share stories and have input to the memorial site.
    Please feel free to spread the word.
    I have been researching and writing about this story for years, and would love to hear from you.

  13. karen clarke says:

    My father was the co pilot on this flight and I was only two years old at the time of his death. Needless to say it changed my life and my mother’s dramatically. It would be a shame in this day and age that with all the technology and social media that an answere could not be found. Sure hope that someone out there is curious enough to pursue this mystery.
    Karen Clarke

  14. Didi says:

    Karen, (and all),
    There will be a formal unveiling of a memorial cairn dedicated to the Lost of Flight 21
    Aug. 31st 2013. at 1:00 pm
    Location; near the 100 Mile House Visitor Centre
    This will be a permanent monument that is more accessible than the actual site.
    We also have a Face Book page; C.P. Air Flight 21, where we will have more information, and post pictures.
    Didi Henderson

  15. karen clarke says:

    Hi Didi,
    Thank you for your response and info. I live in Toronto so unfortuantely can’t make the event, however, will be there in spirit and hopefully one day soon pay a visit to the site.

  16. .faye wright says:

    Your right never heard about it until i accidently came upon it i
    on the internet. This should not be forgotton.

  17. doris lebel says:

    i will get an opportunity to visit the crash site this year. can anyone direct me. where should i drive to. jenn in calgary, did you visit the site yet. doris

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