A quest to find the wreckage of a crashed WW2 P-38 Lightning in the woods north of Ottawa…
During World War Two the German Luftwaffe nicknamed it der Gabelschwanz-Teufel, or “ the fork-tailed devil”. The American built Lockheed P-38 Lightning was aptly nick-named due to its distinctive twin-engine booms and central pilot pod paired with exceptional flight characteristics. The P-38 was a formidable opponent for the Luftwaffe in Europe and for the Japanese in the Pacific, who referred to it as “two planes, one pilot”.
Developed as a twin engined high altitude interceptor to attack hostile aircraft, the P-38 entered service in 1942 and remained in operation with the United States Air Force until 1949. After the war, thousands of P-38 Lightnings became obsolete aircraft as the aviation world entered the jet age. These surplus P-38s 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 P-38 Lightnings made their way to Ottawa in the 1950s being converted into aerial survey aircraft owned and operated by Spartan Air Services. With only a handful of these unique planes still in existence, I hoped to discover if any of these Ottawa “fork tailed devils” still exist and where they might be located.
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 converted P-38s where the machine gun area of the nose was replaced with high altitude cameras for survey mapping work. Operating out of Uplands airport in the mid-1950s, Spartan converted these World War Two fighter planes by modifying them to carry both a pilot and navigator/camera operator as well as the camera equipment necessary to take high-altitude aerial photos. Most of the Spartan 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 plagued by 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.
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, California factory for the United States Air Force. After the war this aircraft was surplussed and sold for civilian use where it became an air racer in both the 1946 and 1947 Bendix air races, which pitted pilots racing against each other in modified warbirds from Burbank, California to Cleveland, Ohio. Records indicate the plane was then sold in 1951 to California Atlantic Airways in Florida, where it was soon sold to Ottawa’s Spartan Air Services in the same year. Modified for aerial survey work, the former warbird P-38 (or F-5 as the photo reconnaissance models were named) began service with a crew of two under the Canadian registration CF-GCG.
On March 15 1955 while on routine patrol, the Spartan Lightning climbed into the air for the last time, taking with it the lives of its pilot, Nicholas Toderan and camera operator Allan Bourne. 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 where it dramatically exploded, scattering debris throughout the woods below. The majority of the aircraft crashed into frozen Lake McGregor near Val-Des-Monts, Quebec. Archival Ottawa Citizen articles reported the event and revealed 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 which sent the plane into its death dive.
The 1955 Ottawa Citizen article showed photos and gave a description of the crash site, which I compared to current maps and information on the area. Plunging into the ice of Lake McGregor near “Ile Aux Mouton” or Sheep Island, 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 his family has a cottage on the lake and that someone had found an usual piece of metal in the woods nearby.
Contacting the owner of this piece of metal, Michel LeFrancois, 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 Mr. LeFrancois to see if his find had any connection to the lost P-38. Arriving at his cottage on Lake McGregor, LeFrancois led us into his backyard where on display was a piece of twisted metal he had found in 1998.
Studying this unusual piece he had found and comparing it 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 that would have been attached to one of the P-38’s Allison V12 engines. Asking where he found the piece, LeFrancois 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 initial mid-air explosion.
Heading into the woods in the direction of where LeFrancois had shown us, we spread out in search of any other wreckage that may still lie in the woods from the ill-fated P-38. After an extensive search a piece of metal was spotted protruding from the thick undergrowth of the forest floor. Concentrating a search within that area we quickly discovered several other pieces of metallic debris that resembled pieces of aircraft.
With these pieces in hand, we thanked LeFrancois and his family for their hospitality and assistance and drove to Michael Potter’s nearby Vintage Wings of Canada facility that owns and operates flying examples of World War Two aircraft. Hoping someone there could confirm the parts we had found were indeed those from a World War Two era aircraft, Vintage Wings staff quickly identified the parts as aircraft hydraulic or fuel lines and what was probably a piece of a camera mount that aerial survey cameras would have been mounted to inside the aircraft. 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 Vintage Wings had in storage. Without much doubt, these were likely newly pieces discovered pieces of the Spartan P-38.
With substantial pieces of Ottawa’s P-38 still being found nearly 70 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”.
After this story was published in the Ottawa Citizen in 2014, I was contacted by the daughter of one of the deceased crew members, and thanked me for bringing into the light what happened to her father that fateful March day in 1955. I thought it only fitting to package up and send her the remains of her father’s aircraft we found in the woods that day, a physical connection to the past she could finally hold in her hands, of which she was grateful to receive.
As time marches on, it always amazes me the unknown history that may be out there, still waiting to be discovered. I was glad to bring a form of closure to the daughter of the perished crew member after we found what was left of the WW2 plane. The search for the fork tailed devil proved successful despite the tragic circumstances.
Andrew King, March 15, 2023
This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen September 27th, 2014.