Searchers of Kananaskis plane crashes made ‘ultimate sacrifice’
November 14, 2023 By Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook
In June 1986, Kananaskis Country had all the makings of a battlefield — helicopters and planes buzzing overhead, soldiers deployed in the air and on the ground and a military base camp set up nearby.
It was a war against the Rocky Mountains.
What began as a mission to locate an overdue aircraft and its occupants — Alberta Fish and Wildlife biologist Orval Pall and pilot Ken Wolff — turned into a full-scale military effort when not one, but two planes went down in the search over the rugged, unforgiving peaks of the Rockies.
There were no survivors. Thirteen people died, including Pall and Wolff. Others were killed in the nearly two-week search for the first downed aircraft.
“This was 37 years ago and it’s still extremely difficult,” said Mike Plumtree, who was 24 years old when his father, Capt. Wayne Plumtree with the Royal Canadian Armed Force’s 418 Air Reserves Squadron in Edmonton, died in the third crash, on June 13, 1986.
“Flying in itself is not inherently dangerous, but like the sea, is terribly unforgiving with any carelessness, incapacity or neglect,” Plumtree said, reading a quote from his father’s flying logbook.
Plumtree noted the quote is not indicative of what caused the three aircraft to crash but sums up the risk of flying — particularly in the mountains and even more so during military and search and rescue operations.
“It’s not like flying an airline where the aircraft takes off, flies straight and lands. They’re lower to the ground and on operations, so the job is inherently dangerous,” he said.
On June 6, 1986, Wolff was piloting a Cessna 182-R that departed from Springbank Airport with Pall as a passenger. The wildlife biologist was monitoring bighorn sheep on Mount Allan for impacts during construction of the Nakiska Ski Resort for the 1988 Winter Olympics.
The plane never returned. It was reported overdue later that day.
Despite what the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) recounts as “terrible weather,” a search and rescue effort was promptly launched by friends from the Calgary International Airport. Pilot Bruce Pratt and pilot Roderick Harradence, with Hayden Evans onboard, flew a Cessna 185 toward a search area focused on Mount Allan.
Their plane also never returned.
A massive search involving RCMP, Fish and Wildlife officers, CASARA, park rangers and civilian volunteers ensued on the ground and in the air to search for the two missing aircraft but was hampered by bad weather and difficult terrain.
According to CFCN News broadcasts, at the time, 16 aircraft, including three armed forces Twin Otters, were involved in searching a 600,000-hectare as far north as Banff and as far south as Turner Valley.
Meanwhile, on the ground, over 100 soldiers from Canadian Forces Base Calgary were called in to comb through the dense, steep bush.
Three days after the planes crashed, it was ground searchers who located debris from the second aircraft carrying Pratt, Harradence and Evans on a ridge on Mount Lougheed. Part of the aircraft’s wing was located lodged into the mountainside at an elevation of 7,500-feet.
CASARA Calgary pilot Garry Wutzke, who was not with the aerial search and rescue organization at the time, recalls watching daily news reports of the events.
“I was not a member during that search, I joined right after,” he said. “I saw a need to help, and I had an aircraft that was capable of searching for CASARA. That kind of made it ideal and easy for me to join.”
Wutzke has since spent 30-plus years piloting search and rescue flights and is all too familiar with the challenges of flying in the Rockies.
“Weather — that’s No. 1 in the mountains. You’ve got to be careful with the weather, it can be so deadly,” he said, reverence in his tone.
The sun and shadows cast by monstrous peaks can also make situational awareness difficult.
“The sun’s angle at particular times… it’s kind of like you see the mountain and yet you don’t. You can be looking at a big mountain with the sun on it, and it’s pretty obvious. But the one that’s hidden in the shadow is … less so.”
Of the flight patterns practised by search planes in mountainous regions, the mountain contour is among those commonly used by search and rescue operations due to the geography, said Wutzke.
“You can’t do an expanding square because mountains get in the way. So, we go around the mountain. That’s exactly what you do. But that’s where you can run into problems because sometimes a mountain is overtaken by another mountain. Of course, they’re not all the same.”
An intensive search continued for Pall and Wolff for several more days, who, along with their aircraft, were still missing.
On June 14, 1986, nine days after Pall and Wolff’s disappearance, one of the Twin Otters involved in the search for the missing men crashed into the side of Cox Hill killing all eight people onboard.
The aircraft was piloted by Capt. Edward Kates and Capt. Plumtree, both of the 418 Air Reserves Squadron. It was carrying Sgt. Brian Burkitt of the #4 Regular Support Unit in Edmonton, as well as five volunteer spotters with CASARA, Carl Grant, David Hall, Charles Masur, Patricia McLean and Jerome Schindler.
It was determined in an investigation into the crash by the Canadian Forces Directorate of Flight Safety that a visual illusion caused by the high angle of the sun, terrain features and the low flight path were contributing factors to the crash.
Two days after the crash, the air search was called off with military officials stating at the time that the decision was not related to the Canadian Forces Twin Otter crash, but due to intensive, yet unsuccessful search efforts by air.
Pressure from then Alberta Premier Don Getty, however, ultimately helped to restart air searches the next day, despite alarming costs associated with the effort.
On June 19, 1986, the aircraft carrying Pall and Wolff was finally located on the west side of Mount Kidd, near Kananaskis Golf Course. It was spotted by the late helicopter pilot Jim Lapinski, of Cochrane, with fellow spotter Clay West.
In Shirlee Smith Matheson’s, Amazing Flight and Flyers, a book which recounts the crashes, the author said the bodies of Wolff and Pall were recovered the next day.
“The ordeal was nearly over, at least for the tired but dedicated searchers,” she wrote.
“The searches had lasted from June 6 to June 20, and those at home watching the news updates on television could now find some relief from the tension.”
Curator of the Alberta Aviation Museum, Ryan Lee, noted while not all those whose lives were claimed in the difficult search were military personnel, each of them deserves respect for making the ultimate sacrifice in one of the province’s deadliest aviation disasters.
“On Remembrance Day, we honour veterans that fought in war or died in war, but there’s a lot of contributions that people make to society that don’t happen fighting in war, that are equally important and equally as deserving of respect,” said Lee.
“We do an ok job-ish, of remembering the military and honouring the military. But there was also five civilians on that plane that were volunteering their search and rescue efforts for free to give back to the community.
“It’s important to remember the civilians as much as we do the military in that search effort.”
It was Pall’s wish that, in the event of his death, the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) be a beneficiary. The Orval Pall Memorial Fund was established in his memory with the AWA first appointed to developing and administering the fund, which continues to support wilderness programs as the Alberta Wilderness Trust with the Calgary Foundation.
Three mountain lakes in Kananaskis Country near Mount Bogart were also dedicated and aptly named Memorial Lakes in memory of those who died. A stone cairn, embronzed with 13 names stands proudly shoreside of the third lake.
Beneath them are the words, “I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, put out my hand and touched the face of God.”