The hunt for one of Ottawa’s “fork-tailed” devils
Oct. 3, 2014, Ottawa - During the Second World War, the German Luftwaffe nicknamed it der Gabelschwanz-Teufel, or “ the fork-tailed devil.”
October 3, 2014 By The Ottawa Citizen
In the Pacific theatre, the Japanese referred to it as “two planes, one pilot.”
For both enemies, the American-built Lockheed P-38 Lightning was aptly nicknamed due to its distinctive twin-engine booms and central pilot pod, paired with exceptional flight characteristics.
Developed as a twin-engined high-altitude interceptor, the P-38 entered service in 1942 and remained in operation with the U.S. Air Force until 1949. As U.S. military aviation approached the jet age thousands of P-38 Lightnings became obsolete and were sold off into a variety of new roles, including foreign air forces, civilian aerial duties and post-war air racers.
A few of these surplus Lightnings made their way to Ottawa in the 1950s and were converted into aerial survey aircraft owned and operated by Spartan Air Services.
With only a handful of these unique planes still in existence around the world, I hoped to discover if any of Ottawa’s own “fork-tailed devils” still existed and where they might be.
Referencing Norman Avery’s 2009 book Spartan: Seven Letters That Spanned the Globe it was determined that Ottawa had at one time a number of P-38s flying out of Uplands airport. They were converted for civilian work by placing high-altitude cameras into the former machine-gun area of the nose, and with other modifications to carry a pilot, as well as a navigator/camera operator.
Most of Spartan’s Lightnings were eventually sold off or scrapped, but a few are displayed in museums in the United States or awaiting restoration.
Tracing serial and registration numbers from the Warbird Registry, I learned Spartan was hit with two tragic P-38 crashes in 1955, one going down south of Ottawa near what is now Rideau Carleton Raceway, killing the pilot and destroying the aircraft.
The other plane mysteriously crashed in a lake north of Ottawa, killing its crew of two, pilot Nicholas Toderan and camera operator Allan Bourne.
Records show the registration number of that crashed P-38 to be “CF-GCG,” which I used to trace the serial number of the plane: 44-53183. This revealed the plane was built at Lockheed’s Burbank, Calif., factory for the USAF.
After the war, this Lightning was sold for civilian use where it was raced in the 1946 and 1947 Bendix air races, which pitted pilots racing against each other from Burbank to Cleveland, Ohio. Records indicate the plane was then sold in 1951 to California Atlantic Airways in Florida, where it was soon re-sold to Ottawa’s Spartan Air Services in the same year.
On March 15, 1955, CF-GCG climbed into the air for the last time.
The aircraft reportedly was operating at high altitude over the Gatineau Hills and, for reasons unknown, went into a steep dive that accelerated the aircraft to the speed of sound before it dramatically exploded, scattering debris throughout the woods below. Most of the plane crashed into frozen Lac McGregor near Val-des-Monts, Que.
Archival Citizen articles reported that some of the wreckage was recovered from the lake bottom along with the bodies of Toderan and Bourne. Explanations for the crash in the article said there may have been a lack of oxygen in the cockpit, causing the pilot to lose consciousness, sending the plane into its death dive.
The Citizen article showed photos and gave a description of the crash site near Sheep Island, which I compared to current maps and information on the area. A photo in the original article showed a cottage in the background that belonged to former Ottawa mayor Charlotte Whitton. Using this as a basis for a search into whether or not any P-38 wreckage remains undiscovered, I inquired on social media if anyone had a cottage on the lake that I could rent as a “base of operations.”
A friend, James Murphy, replied that, not only did his family have a cottage on the lake, but that someone had found an unusual piece of metal in the woods nearby.
Contacting the owner of this piece of metal, Michel LeFrançois, it was determined his cottage was in the same area of the reported crash site. Packing a camera and kit bag, we headed up to meet LeFrançois to see if his find had any connection to the lost P-38. At his cottage on Lac McGregor, LeFrançois led us into his backyard where on display was a piece of twisted metal he had found in 1998.
Comparing this piece to diagrams and a scale model of a P-38, we identified the part as likely the top section of the engine’s turbo-supercharger unit, which would have been attached to one of the P-38’s Allison V12 engines. Asking where he found the piece, LeFrançois pointed into the woods near his cottage which turned out to be directly in front of the lake crash site. This engine piece was likely part of the debris that had rained down overhead after the mid-air explosion.
Heading into the woods in the direction of where LeFrançois had directed us, we spread out in search of any other wreckage. An extensive search uncovered a piece of metal protruding from the thick forest undergrowth.
Concentrating on that area, we quickly discovered several other pieces of metallic debris that resembled pieces of aircraft.
With these pieces in hand, we drove to Michael Potter’s nearby Vintage Wings of Canada facility, which owns and operates flying examples of Second World War aircraft.
Vintage Wings staff quickly identified the parts as hydraulic or fuel lines and what was probably a piece of a camera mount for aerial survey cameras. We were then shown an example of the same Allison engine that the parts would have been from, as well as a P-38 turbo-supercharger unit that Vintage Wings had in storage. These were likely newly discovered pieces of Spartan’s P-38, CF-GCG.
With substantial pieces of Ottawa’s P-38 still being found 60 years after the crash, one wonders if other pieces of this ill-fated warbird remain in the forest waiting to be discovered.
It continues to be a mystery as to what happened that fateful day in 1955, perhaps the pilot suffered from anoxia, plunging the crew to their deaths, or maybe a mechanical malfunction caused the plane to crash.
Whatever the case may be, it seems the plane lived up to its nick-name as the “fork-tailed devil.”