Crash and burn - But he always walked away. The Staff Sgt. Bob MacKinnon story
September 21, 1971 was a beautiful day. Twenty-five-year-old Cst. Bob MacKinnon had almost six years in the Force when he was called into Sgt. Clyde Strong’s office and told about a lost hunter in the Star Lake area.
The RCMP aircraft was coming into Deer Lake on a schedule flight and it would be used to search for the lost hunter. So Cst. MacKinnon and Cst. Barry Sibley, who was booked on the flight for his transfer to Labrador, drove to Deer lake together and boarded the flight.
The pilot was Staff Sgt. Donald Klancher. Cst. Bernie Johnston, the dog handler also joined the search. They flew over Hind's Lake and could see where the hunters had set up camp. A couple of them were still at the site.
The pilot then flew further down the lake. He turned the aircraft into the wind and started to land on top of the lake. Suddenly, the plane started to have engine problems, MacKinnon noticed the propellers had stopped and watched as the pilot pulled and pushed on the throttle. In horror, he watched as Staff Sgt. Klancher tried to restart the engine, but it would not turn over. Klancher turned around to the passengers and said, “Get ready. We’re going to have to crash land.” The aircraft began to fall from the sky. MacKinnon says, “It was the scariest day of my life! It only took seconds for the plane to crash but it seemed like an eternity.” MacKinnon says Klancher held the plane till the very last minute, he was heading in nose first and at the last second, pulled back on the stick and tried to land her on the pontoons as much as he could. The plane hit a wooded area and bounced, landed another 3 or 4 hundred feet and bounced again. When the plane hit the ground, a pontoon came up through the floor and struck MacKinnon’s seat crashing into his knee smashing the tendons. He lost consciousness for a few minutes.
When MacKinnon came to, Staff Sgt. Klancher and Bernie Johnston were out of the aircraft. They were desperately trying to pry open the side door which had buckled on impact. Barry Sibley was standing inside the plane trying help them open the door. The front of the aircraft was on fire. MacKinnon remembered that they had filled it full of fuel before they left Deer Lake. He knew the plane was going to blow up and could hear the tanks hissing under the pressure. He was in the front of the plane and knew the only way out for him, because of his leg, would be to climb over the pilot’s seat and get out through the pilot’s door. He was wearing his tunic and brown belt and it got hooked up in something, he tried several times to pull himself free, and adds, “I never had the sense of mind to undo the belt in the panic of the moment.” He finally freed himself and could hear a crunching sound. He looked back through the flames and realized Klancher and Johnston had opened the back door and was able to get Barry Sibley out. MacKinnon jumped out of the pilot’s door, with his shattered leg, he dragged himself and crawled as fast as he could away from the plane. Within seconds he heard a rumbling sound, followed by a loud bang, the plane burst into flames.
Two of the hunters from the camp, made their way to the crash site and helped the four members back to their camp. They spent the night there waiting to be rescued, but no one knew they had crashed. The pilot had filed a flight plan but no one at the flight control tower in Deer Lake checked to see if they had made it. When the shift changed at the tower, an air traffic controller noticed they had not been heard from and decided to follow up on it by calling all the airports in Newfoundland and Labrador looking for the RCMP plane. The officer in charge of the Corner Brook Subdivision, Supt. Bill Halleran called MacKinnon’s wife at 11:30 PM and asked if Bob was home. MacKinnon says, “Of course then my wife knew there was something wrong.” She spent the night walking the floor waiting for news with a six-month-old baby in her arms.
The next morning, MacKinnon estimates it to be around 9:00 AM, they started to hear some planes. They could see the planes fly over the crash site and next came the big helicopter from the Buchan’s Mine. It landed near by and transported MacKinnon to hospital. The other three passengers did not receive any serious injuries from the crash. MacKinnon jokes, “When my wife came into the room and seen me, she passed out and ended up in the bed next to me.” After several surgeries, MacKinnon was back on his feet and back to work.
Bob MacKinnon retired as a Staff Sergeant in 2003 with 38 years service. He says, “If it wasn’t for Staff Sgt. Klancher keeping his cool the way he did and bringing that plane down the way he did, there would be no survivors.” Klancher went on to have a long career with the RCMP. He served in Regina, Saskatchewan, Ottawa, Ontario, and then British Columbia in the late 1970's. MacKinnon says he lost track of Cst. Sibley and Sgt. Johnston.
It took him a couple of months before he could fly again. He was boarding an Eastern Provincial Airlines plane and was terrified. The stewardess noticed he was starting to panic and asked if everything was alright. He told her about his last flight, and she tapped him on the shoulder and said, “You’ll be alright. Don’t worry.” As the plane took off, he thought, “I hope nothing like that every happens to me again.” Nine years later, he was in a car accident on the Northern Peninsula that almost took his life. Shortly after than, the Force put him at a desk job.
Read Bob MacKinnon's stories along with the stories of other Veterans who served in B Division in 'In Search of Adventure - 70 Years of the RCMP in NL."