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