PENTICTON - Sight line issues at Penticton Regional Airport are keeping away nighttime flights for safety reasons but if that’s all the drama the airstrip musters, we can consider ourselves lucky.
It wasn’t always that way.
Going back a few decades, Penticton has quite a colourful and even criminal aviation history.
THREE TIMES UNLUCKY
On Dec. 22, 1950, a Canadian Pacific Air Lines C-47, a military version of the venerable DC-3, got off to a rough start, according to the 46th report of the Okanagan Historical Society and archived newspaper stories of the day.
The flight originated in Vancouver, where two previous attempts to get to Penticton were thwarted. One was due to mechanical malfunction, the other due to icing problems after taking off in a substitute aircraft.
The 18 souls on board finally got to the Okanagan on the third attempt. Passenger accounts of the crash recall the pilot telling them: “Everything is fine, we’re going to make it to Penticton this time.”
But at 1:45 p.m., the plane crashed into Okanagan Mountain on approach to Penticton airport.
Passengers heard a scratching noise as the plane brushed tree tops before the plane struck a tree, shearing the cockpit from the main body of the plane, which settled into three feet of snow on the mountaintop.
The pilot and co-pilot were the only two persons killed in the crash, leaving 16 passengers.
Fortunately, the wing tanks didn’t rupture and the wreckage landed in snow so it didn’t catch fire. The plane, with a gross weight of 25,772 pounds, was nearly at its flying weight capacity of 26,200 pounds.
It’s unknown exactly what caused the crash. During the inquest into the accident there was speculation the altimeter was not reading accurately, and it was also revealed the plane was flying through a cloud bank when it hit.
Passengers overnighted on the mountain as a rescue team attempted to reach them overland. An air rescue team parachuted into the site the following morning, and eventually the 16 survivors were able to make their way off the mountain.
A B.C. Parks brochure outlining things of interest in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park also notes the crash site, but adds there is little to see after 66 years and past salvaging efforts.
Still, bits of wreckage remain at the site today. Comments on the Tracks and Trails website say some of the wreckage, including a section of the fuselage, remain. They also note the wreckage is not near any established trails and requires an arduous hike to reach.
On Jan. 4, 1973, passengers bound for Penticton were witness to a hijack attempt of a Penticton-bound flight out of Vancouver.
The Penticton Herald reported the Pacific Western Airlines Convair aircraft was scheduled to take off from Vancouver to Penticton and Castlegar when Vancouver police received a call around noon that the plane was being hijacked.
A man later identified as 26-year-old Christopher Kenneth Nielson brandished what looked like a gun to the aircrew and demanded to be taken to North Vietnam. He also demanded $2 million and threatened to blow up the aircraft.
In negotiations, he agreed to release all 13 passengers and one aircrew, leaving three crew onboard. But once the passengers were safe, police stormed the plane, and arrested Nielson without injury.
He was carrying two toy guns.
The plane was a couple of hours late, but managed to make its run to Penticton and Castlegar later that day.
Nielson was later charged with attempted extortion and having a weapon dangerous to the public peace. Clearly he didn’t think his hijacking through: The plane had a range of only 1,000 miles.
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