The Sabena Airliner Crash

South of Gander Lake, Central

In mid-September, 1946 a Sabena Airlines Douglas DC-4 left Shannon Airport, Ireland en route to Gander, Newfoundland. Gander would be the second and final stop for the aircraft before finishing its journey from Brussels, England to New York. The plane was carrying 44 people and was scheduled to land at Gander International Airport on the morning of September 18, 1946. 

As the plane approached Gander the weather was far from ideal. Dense fog, drizzle, and a brisk northern wind created low visibility and turbulence. In an attempt to get a visual on the runway, the pilot lowered the plane's altitude. The maneuver turned fatal when the plane hit the forest below and crashed 35 km south of Gander. The plane was torn apart as it descended down into the trees and bog lying below. The plane crash is accepted by many to be the first major civilian airliner crash in history.

27 people were killed in the crash while 16 passengers and one crew member survived. The worst was yet to come. It took search and rescue operations several days to find the crash site due to its remote location in the backwoods of central Newfoundland. Rescue operations to get to the site took even longer. The first to arrive at the crash site were two caribou hunters from Glenwood who tended to the survivors and help the best they could. The following ay an advance rescue teamed arrived with a medical doctor. The rescue team stayed with and helped the people survive the cold and wet climate until they could be evacuated and brought back to Gander.

The location of the crash was not near any ponds or lakes large enough to fly pontoon planes into and the bog that surrounds the region made hiking very difficult. In order to reach the crash site helicopters were flown from Gander and landed on nearby lakes where rescue crews could access the site by hiking. The rescue becomes one of the first civilian aviation rescues to use helicopters. Several PBY flying boats were landed on Dead Wolf River and then crews trekked about a mile to the crash and carried the survivors out to safety.

 

Those who died in the crash were buried on site in a cemetery created next to the planes remains. The cemetery was named St. Martin-in-the Woods after Dr. Samuel P. Martin who was the first medical doctor on the site. Martin is recognized for the great help he was in helping and saving victims of the crash.

Today the site is an ominous reminder of the events that took place in 1946. The wreckage of the plane remains in a small clearing south of Gander. Parts of the plane such as the tail fin and the structure of the fuselage still remain intact today. A memorial plaque is a symbol of remembrance for the 27 people who lost their lives. The wreckage and cemetery are now protected by the Historic Resource Act put in place by the provincial government.

Accessing the site is not as hard as it was in 1946 due to the high number of logging roads now covering the area. The site is however still a long drive on dirt roads that ends with a short hike into the woods. Many of the roads are well worn and few are still maintained. An off-road vehicle or ATV is required to reach the site.

Sources & Further Exploring

Tibbo, F. (1993). Charlie Baker George: The Story of Sabena 00CBG. St. John's, NL: Jesperson Press.

 

Sabena Crash 1946. Gander Airport Historical Society website found www.ganderairporthistoricalsociety.org/_html_4658/Sabena_crash.htm.

 

Photo Credit: A big thanks to photographer Wade Janes for donating all the photos on this page!