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September 5, 2003

The Tale of "James Cagney's Norseman" Plane Crash and Recovery

James Cagney's bush plane in the 1941 movie Captains of the Clouds shown in the photo here landing on Four Mile Bay on Trout Lake in North Bay was a Noorduyn Mark I Norseman. The Cagney plane was the first of 903 of these "venerable workhorses" built from 1935 to 1959. Today I want to profile what happened to Cagney's plane 50 years ago today (August 28, 1953) and the fascinating follow up to that event.

James Cagney's Norseman plane is pictured landing at the dock on Four Mile Bay in Trout Lake in 1941 in the top photo and the same location, on the left, is pictured recently with researcher Rudy Mauro on the dock DND/RCAF Photo.

Before doing that let me note that this story comes from an article researched and written by Rudy Mauro who provided much of the information on my past 2 articles on Ernie Rousseau and the movie Captains of the Clouds. I went to Four Mile Bay recently with Rudy to the original site where the "Lac Vert Trading Post "footage in the film was shot in 1941. None of the original set remains but as seen in the photo the shore and horizon are the same. One can visualize the scene in the movie where the female lead Brenda Marshall lays languidly in a rowboat in the grass shown on the left and wades through the shallow water to meet Cagney's Norseman as it taxis to the dock.

The film crew on the specially built dock were shooting Cagney's first Technicolor film which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Colour Cinematography. 

Cagney's Norseman

Cagney's plane was used for 17 years by various airlines. In the summer of 1953 the plane was leased to Roy Downing, an ex-RCAF flier operating as Algonquin Lakes Air Service. On the 25th of August 1953 the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests hired Downing to help fight a serious forest fire in south central Algonquin Park. He made 32 flights in the next 3 days.

Fifty years ago to the day as I write Downing was asked to pick up some fire rangers equipment and transfer it to another lake. He had 2 passengers, a 14 year old boy and a timber cruiser from Huntsville. When the plane with its heavy load reached its destination fire fighters saw the plane descend and then ascend to make another attempt to land.

The plane suddenly stalled and fell into the bush and burst into flame and burned. Downing and his passengers were killed. A board of inquiry found no conclusive evidence of a cause.

Retrieving the Wreck.

In 1992 Rudy Mauro while researching the Captains of the Clouds movie inquired about the plane and a fascinating tale of recovery materialized. The Ministry of Natural Resources Information Officer Bob Thomas, who was helping develop the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre in Sault Ste. Marie and MNR forester and unofficial park historian Jack Mihell became enthusiastically involved. Mihell who has helped me on several occasions in my research on other Park history became the leader of a group of MNR staff and volunteers who would go after the remains of the Norseman. 

The Captains of the Clouds Display at the Callander Bay Heritage Museum. Carol Pretty Museum Curator, left, and Yvette Boyce.

On November 9, 1992 the team with 5 vehicles and loads of equipment began the arduous 42km trip from Hwy 60 to the site. It took 2 days to salvage and load the wreckage, including small items discovered with a metal detector, onto the floats. At Jack Mihell's request Rudy Mauro who accompanied the team made and posted a sign that stated CF-AYO CRASHED HERE AUG 1953. SALVAGED NOV 9, 1992. FIRST NORSEMAN. Rudy recorded the event with many photographs in the Journal of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society. The salvaged plane rests in the Canadian Bushplane Museum in the Soo for all to see in this 100th year of flight.

The Captains of the Clouds display at the Callander Bay Heritage Museum features 2 excellent models of a Norseman plane. One is in the Captains of the Clouds colours and the other larger one is a detailed later version of the Norseman. Both were made by Wayne Quirt an active member of the Nipissing Miniature Aircraft Club and are on loan from the North Bay Area Museum and Richard Lalonde respectively.

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