Rick continues to pilot us through the darkness and Hamilton’s easy commands to the vessels, “Sandy, take us left just a sniff”, keep the tow on a good course. There are only a few more miles of the river to go before we enter Smallwood Reservoir.
Ahead is one last difficult part of the river to navigate. Mark and Rick discuss the possibility of making the transit of this area in darkness. The team has been handling the tow very well and Rick and Mark agree that the passage could be made. Shortly after this decision to continue the batteries on all the portable radios begin to fade. With good communications the passage could be made, but the need to recharge the radio batteries is the deciding factor on halting the tow and anchoring in the river until daylight. It is now 3:30am and the anchor is dropped off the aircraft and sets, bringing all the vessels to a halt in the river.
As the team members begin to try to relax and catch some sleep, those still up are treated to another spectacle of lights displayed in the eastern skies.
It takes about three hours for the radio batteries to get recharged and then the anchor is hauled and the tow resumed.
Despite the lack of sleep, our experience gained in the past two days is serving us well and the handling of the tow is going very well. Rick, Mark and Hamilton work together to pilot and direct the navigation of this last difficult passage in the river. All is lined up and proceeding well when, as if on cue, the larger assist boat develops mechanical problems just before they are needed act. Sandy, Lee and Zak work swiftly to identify and correct the problem while Hamilton directs Tony and Gordy in the other boat to compensate. The mechanical problem is resolved and the tow maintains the necessary course to clear the narrow passage. The last few miles of the river pass easily and the entry into Smallwood Reservoir is just a few hours away.
Everyone has worked exceptionally well together under extreme circumstances. While the speed of the tow was slow and monotonous, the current and conditions would rapidly work together to develop situations that could result in catastrophe. Every individual on the tow worked together, despite frustrations, lack of sleep and irregular meals to get the aircraft to this point.
Tony and Gordy, in the smallest assist vessel, besides helping control the maneuvering of the tow, made the runs for fuel and food.
Sandy, Lee and Zak in the larger assist boat were continuously maneuvering their vessel to steer and maintain the course of the aircraft.
Aboard the aircraft, John was checking the rigging and adding air to the lift bags. Hamilton did a superb job of coordinating the vessels in maneuvers and maintaining the course of the tow.
On the Silver Dolphin, Rick guided the tow through the safest possible passage while Don, Joey, Roy, and Gary Senior and Junior took their turns at tending the tow lines, which required constant vigilance.
It was at this point, the entry into Smallwood Reservoir that the weather began to deteriorate. The wind was beginning to build and was backing from the south to the southeast. Whitecaps could be seen out on the reservoir and the wave height was 3 feet and rising. In this area of the confluence of the river and reservoir there were several locations that would provide safe anchorage in sheltered waters. Don asked Rick and Mark for their opinions as to continuing or waiting for better weather. Both Rick and Mark felt that the present conditions would allow for successful passage. Mark observed that this might be as good as the conditions might be for some time. Don agreed and the decision was made to make the passage.
The wind was coming from the southeast at 20 knots and waves were 3 to 4 feet. The Silver Dolphin was pitching and rolling now and the waves were slapping at the lift bags on the B-17.
After 30 minutes of progress out into the reservoir Don asked Mark about the actions to be taken if the plane were to go down at this point. Don wanted to make sure that John and Hamilton would be immediately recovered.
The procedure would be to have one of the assist boats remove the men and then stand clear of the aircraft. The towlines would be cast off or cut and GPS coordinates recorded. If time allowed a marker buoy would also be deployed. Don wanted to make certain that the safety of the team members was the highest priority.
Despite towing almost directly into the wind and waves, our forward progress attained its greatest speed of 2.4 knots. Impact from the waves on the lift bags was causing the overpressure valves on the bags to vent air. John found that he had to almost constantly add air to the lift bags in order to maintain them at full inflation.
When we had just about reached the halfway point across the reservoir John radioed Mark to inform him that engines number 3 and 4 were beginning to move back and forth on their mounts. This was a critical problem as the lift bags were secured to the engines and mounts. The losses of either one or both of the engines would likely take 2 or 3 lift bags with them and result in the loss of the aircraft in over 110 feet of water! Mark informed Don of the situation and then advised John and Hamilton to further secure and restrain the engines as best possible. He then requested Rick to reduce speed and change course to allow the tow to ride easier. Forward progress was slowed to under 2 knots and the new course resulted in an increase of the distance we would have to travel, but the movement of the engines stopped and everyone began to breathe easier.
Soon the massive water control gates at Lobstick, part of the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project, came into view. Although the wind continued to build, we were now in the lee of the shore and the waves and whitecaps diminished. About 6:30pm, just a few hours from our destination we needed to refuel the Silver Dolphin one more time to insure that we would make it. Tony and Gordy made one more fuel trip and the necessary fuel was poured into the boat’s tanks.
We arrived at our destination at 9:00pm and quickly transferred the towlines to the shore and secured the B-17 to the shoreline. 58 hours after we had climbed into the boats and begun to rig the tow we were able to go ashore, our mission complete. Everyone had worked together and worked hard to handle the task and meet the challenges that faced us during the journey. The aircraft, which had rested on the river bottom only 8 days before now, was secure at the site where we would disassemble it and load it aboard trucks for transport to Labrador City.
We were too tired to be jubilant and the celebration of the accomplishment would wait for another day. About midnight a van arrived to take us to a small hotel at the town of Churchill Falls, population 300, over two hours away. There, we were able to take nice hot showers and climb into comfortable beds for some good, solid, well-earned sleep.
Pictured below: The team and the B-17 on September 2, 2004
Coming next: Churchill Falls and disassembly of the aircraft.