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

Northwest soon to become yet another YWG ghost

What are your memories as a former passenger or employee of Northwest, Jetsgo, Canada 3000, Royal Airlines, Pacific Western, Transair or any of the other airlines that came and went through Winnipeg over the years? Share them in the comments section below, or by e-mailing

On Feb. 1, 1928, a Northwest Airlines flight departed Minneapolis/St. Paul en route to Fargo and Winnipeg. It was the first international flight for Northwest, which would go on to become one of the USA’s largest international carriers. It was also the start of an 81-year relationship between Northwest and Winnipeggers.

In the not so distant future, Northwest’s name and red-tailed aircraft will disappear forever from Winnipeg James Richardson International Airport as the Minnesota-based airlines is absorbed into Atlanta-based Delta Airlines.

Northwests Boeing 727s were a familiar sight in Winnipeg from the late 60s until well into the 90s. (© Richard Vandervord)

Northwest's Boeing 727s were a familiar sight in Winnipeg from the late '60s until well into the '90s. (© Richard Vandervord)

Northwest DC-9 in final colour scheme prior to Delta acquisition. (© Carlos Vaz)

Northwest DC-9 in final colour scheme prior to Delta acquisition. (© Carlos Vaz)

There have been many carriers that have passed through Winnipeg over the years. Some served the city for years, others for just a few months. Let’s take a look back at some of the other airlines that have connected Winnipeggers to the world over the years. If you’ve flown any of these airlines, please share your memories of them — good or bad — in the comments section. I’d love to hear them.

Jetsgo (© Richard Austen)

Jetsgo (© Richard Austen)


Years at YWG: 2002-2005

Destinations: Other major cities in Canada

Remembered for: Extremely low promotion fares (e.g., $10), long delays, increasingly chaotic operation during its final weeks in the air.

Ultimate Fate: Shut down and declared bankruptcy in March 2005. Transport Canada was reportedly close to grounding the airline for safety reasons at the time.

Analysis: Given the alarming details that we’ve learned about this airline from Transport Canada and former Jetsgo employees since the 2005 shutdown, the best thing that could be said about Jetsgo is that no one got killed.

Canada 3000 (© Alain Durand)

Canada 3000 (© Alain Durand)

Canada 3000

Years at YWG: c. 1988-2001

Destinations: Initially Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and a few routes in Canada. Later began to offer more domestic flights in competition with Air Canada.

Remembered for: Low fares to Europe and tight seating. One joke suggested that the “3000” stood for the number of passengers it tried to squeeze into each aircraft. Blunt-talking CEO whom the newspapers knew was always good for a quote.

Ultimate Fate: Declared bankruptcy and shut down in November 2001.

Analysis: Was a well-run and usually profitable business when it was still a niche carrier. Putting itself into debt by buying its competitors in 2000-01 and going head-to-head with Air Canada was its big mistake. Was already in trouble by the summer of 2001, and doomed after 9-11.

Royal Airlines (© Javier Rodriguez)

Royal Airlines (© Javier Rodriguez)

Royal Airlines

Years at YWG: Early ’90s to 2000-01

Destinations: Initially flew a lot of European and Sun charters out of Winnipeg. Briefly ran domestic flights toward the end.

Remembered for: Didn’t make a big impression.

Ultimate Fate: Taken over by Canada 3000.

Analysis: Came and went without much fanfare. Neither loved nor loathed by the public.

CanJet (© Andrew Colvin)

CanJet (© Andrew Colvin)


Years at YWG: Late ’90s to about 2000 or 2001

Destinations: Toronto and points east

Remembered for: Halifax-based discount carrier modeled after WestJet. Had a flight that departed Winnipeg for Toronto at 3 a.m.

Ultimate Fate: Taken over by Canada 3000. Later resurrected under the same ownership as before the sale. Now only operating charter flights.

Analysis: Might have made it if it had been launched prior to WestJet.

Canadian Airlines (© Howard Chaloner)

Canadian Airlines (© Howard Chaloner)

Canadian Airlines

Years at YWG: 1987 to 2000-01

Destinations: Most major cities between Toronto and Vancouver. Connections to other destinations through Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto.

Remembered for: Famous “Wingwalkers” ad, showing Air Canada passengers walking across the wings of two airplanes flying side-by-side to get on a more welcoming Canadian Airlines jet. Narrowly avoiding bankruptcy twice, in 1991-92 and 1995-96.

Ultimate Fate: Purchased by Air Canada in 1999, reportedly just days away from bankruptcy.

Analysis: Made a good effort, but was trying to make money with a full-service, all-things-to-all-people business model that had no hope of profitability in the deregulation era. Barely made it to the end of the ’90s as it was, and even a little more cash in the bank would not have allowed Canadian to survive 9-11 or the SARS outbreak.

VistaJet (© John Kelley)

VistaJet (© John Kelley)


Years at YWG: A few short months in mid-1997

Destinations: Toronto and a few other cities in the region

Remembered for: Barely remembered at all, except by the few passengers it carried and some employees who had a summer job in the airline industry.

Ultimate Fate: Bankruptcy after 3-4 months in operation

Analysis: A small, underfunded company that entered a crowded marketplace without anything to make it stand out from the crowd.

Greyhound Air (© Andy Vanderheyden)

Greyhound Air (© Andy Vanderheyden)

Greyhound Air

Years at YWG: 1996-97

Destinations: Most major cities in Canada

Remembered for: Cheeky TV ad showing a greyhound relieving itself on a competitor’s landing gear.

Ultimate Fate: Parent company purchased by another corporation that wasn’t interested in running a money-losing airline.

Analysis: One of the better attempts at launching a discount airline, by capitalizing on Greyhound Bus Lines’ brand name and good advertising. With a more fuel-efficient fleet (its Boeing 727s were gas guzzlers) and point-to-point flights instead of a hub-and-spoke model, it might have done better.

Wardair (© Bob Logan)

Wardair (© Bob Logan)


Years at YWG: ’60s, ’70s and ’80s

Destinations: Charters to Hawaii and Europe for many years; a few domestic scheduled flights in the late ’80s

Remembered for: Good service — the details of which founder and CEO Max Ward took an intensive interest . Meals served on fine china and with silverware.

Ultimate Fate: Got itself into financial trouble when it tried to get into scheduled domestic service in the late ’80s. Later taken over by Canadian Airlines (largely for its valuable slots at European airports) for what was considered an inflated price.

Analysis: A company with a fine reputation that should have stuck to its niche as a classy charter airline.

CP Air (© Bob Garrard)

CP Air (© Bob Garrard)

CP Air (Canadian Pacific Airlines)

Years at YWG: c. 1942 to 1987

Destinations: Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, with onward connections to California, Hawaii, Ottawa, Montreal and Europe.

Remembered for: Eye-catching orange/silver livery. Boasting that it served its meals using real dishes and utensils, “never plastic”.

Ultimate Fate: Taken over by Calgary-based Pacific Western Airlines in 1986-87 as the nucleus of Canadian Airlines.

Analysis: Was of more value to Canadian Pacific for its good reputation than for the money it made, which was reportedly never much.

Pacific Western Airlines (© Alain Rioux)

Pacific Western Airlines (© Alain Rioux)

Pacific Western Airlines (PWA)

Years at YWG: 1979-87

Destinations: Cities in northern Manitoba, B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Remembered for: Buying out Winnipeg-based Transair in the late ’70s. Billing itself as “The Competition” to Air Canada on routes to the other three western provinces. Briefly offering Boeing 767 widebody service to… Regina!

Ultimate Fate: Took over CP Air in 1986-87 with the goal of turning itself into a global airline.

Analysis: PWA was Canada’s most successful airline in the ’70s and ’80s, making a profit every year from 1970 to 1986. Had it continued its conservative approach, and modeled itself after consistently profitable Southwest Airlines in the U.S., it would still be in the skies today. Instead, it threw out a successful business model that had made it money for 16 consecutive years, and replaced it with another business model that no one was having much success with. Too bad.

Frontier (© Richard Vandervord)

Frontier (© Richard Vandervord)


Years at YWG: 1974-86

Destinations: Denver (via Bismarck and/or Minot), with onward connections to the western and southwestern U.S.

Remembered for: Serving steak and wine in Economy Class in the ’70s. Friendly, informal flight attendants and all-economy seating that made it kind of like “WestJet with meal service”.

Ultimate Fate: Bankruptcy in 1986. A new Frontier Airlines was launched out of Denver in 1994 by former managers and employees of the original Frontier, but is otherwise unrelated.

Analysis: A unique airline that was caught up in insane competition in the mid-’80s at its Denver hub (which was also a hub city for both United and Continental at the time). Came under the ownership of dysfunctional People Express, a.k.a. People Distress

Nordair (© Howard Chaloner)

Nordair (© Howard Chaloner)


Years at YWG: 1979-86

Destinations: Dryden, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Toronto and points east

Remembered for: Regional service connecting Winnipeg to northern Ontario. If you stayed on the plane long enough, eventually you’d reach Toronto.

Ultimate Fate: Taken over by CP Air in 1985-86, which was itself taken over by PWA soon afterwards.

Analysis: A benign regional carrier that knew its niche and never reached beyond its grasp.

Republic Airlines (© Frank C. Duarte, Jr.)

Republic Airlines (© Frank C. Duarte, Jr.)

Republic Airlines

Years at YWG: 1979 to c. 1981 (give or take a year)

Destinations: Duluth and Milwaukee, possibly Minneapolis as well, with onward connections.

Remembered for: Not much. Never established a strong brand presence in Winnipeg. (Though I once heard that one of its airplanes had so much litter strewn around that it reminded one passenger of the Winnipeg Stadium after a football game.)

Ultimate Fate: Canceled service to Winnipeg during the recession of the early ’80s. Later taken over by Northwest Airlines in 1986. Brand name now used by a U.S. feeder airline unrelated to the original Republic Airlines.

Analysis: Was a logical choice if you wanted to go to Minnesota or Wisconsin, perhaps even to Chicago. But if you were going anywhere else, there were more attractive options available.

Transair (© Bob Garrard)

Transair (© Bob Garrard)


Years at YWG: 1947-1979 (Known as Central Northern Airways until 1956)

Destinations: Northern Manitoba, the N.W.T. and Yukon, northern Ontario, Toronto, plus charters to Europe, the Caribbean, Hawaii and other popular destinations. Briefly served Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton in the run-up to its merger with PWA in 1979.

Remembered for: Winnipeg’s hometown airline. Boldly coloured yellow-and-brown airplanes.

Ultimate Fate: Ran into financial trouble in the mid-’70s and began looking for a buyer. Was rebuffed by Air Canada and CP Air before being purchased by Pacific Western in 1977. Merger completed in 1979.

Analysis: Operated too many different types of aircraft: Boeing 707s and 737s, Fokker F-28s, YS-11 turboprops, helicopters and freighters. Even if it had been able to continue on as an independent airline into the ’80s, it probably would have been bought out during the 1985-87 wave of mergers.

North Central Airlines (© Aris Pappas)

North Central Airlines (© Aris Pappas)

North Central Airlines

Years at YWG: 1974-79

Destinations: Duluth and Milwaukee, with onward connections to Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit and other cities in the Upper Midwest. Acted as a feeder for larger airlines like American and United.

Remembered for: Casual regional airline run by friendly Midwesterners.

Ultimate Fate: Merged with Southern Airways in 1979 to form Republic Airlines, which was itself taken over by Northwest Airlines in 1986. Some of North Central’s former DC-9s still call in at YWG today. Watch for Northwest aircraft carrying the registration N***NC (the “NC” standing for North Central).

Analysis: A small airline from a different era that was sure to end up merging with or being taken over by someone else.