There have been many tragic events in Canada’s aviation history. Some of these have involved Canadian aircraft, commercial as well as non-commercial. In other cases, many Canadians have died in the crash of a non-Canadian aircraft. Crashes that occurred over Canadian soil, or search and rescue efforts in which Canadians have played a large part, are also part of this history.
The first death involving an airplane in Canada occurred in Victoria, British Columbia, on 6 August 1913. That day, American barnstormer (stunt pilot) John M. Bryant was killed in the crash of his Curtiss seaplane. Such early accidents usually involved few people, owing to the small size of the aircraft. However, when aircraft became larger and their commercial use became more common, crashes became deadlier. Canada’s first major air disaster occurred on 25 August 1928. A Ford Trimotor plane en route from Victoria to Seattle flew into the waters of Puget Sound in bad weather. Seven people died.
Commercial Airline Disasters
On 9 December 1956, 62 people on board a Trans-Canada flight died. At the time, it was the worst crash in Canadian aviation history. The plane disappeared en route from Vancouver to Calgary. Its wreckage was later found on Mount Slesse, British Columbia. Among the passengers were members of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers heading home from an all-star game.
A crash less than a year later surpassed this record number of deaths. On 11 August 1957, a Maritime Central Airways DC-4 aircraft crashed near Quebec City, killing 79 people. The flight, chartered by the Imperial Veterans of Toronto, was carrying Canadian veterans home from family visits in Britain.
The worst commercial airline accident in Canada involving Canadian aircraft occurred near Sainte-Thérèse, Quebec, on 29 November 1963. A Trans-Canada Airlines DC-8F crashed four minutes after takeoff from Montreal–Dorval International Airport (now known as Trudeau Airport). All 118 people aboard died. The cause of the crash was never satisfactorily explained.
Other important commercial airline disasters include a crash on 8 July 1965. That day, a Canadian Pacific Airlines plane exploded while flying from Vancouver to Whitehorse, killing all 52 on board. Several years later, on 5 July 1970, an Air Canada DC-8 made a heavy landing in Toronto, bounced and lost one starboard engine. In the pilot’s attempt to take off and land again, the other starboard engine fell off and the aircraft crashed, killing all 109 passengers. And on 11 February 1978, a Pacific Western Airlines plane crashed while trying to avoid a snow blower on the runway in Cranbrook, British Columbia. Forty-three people died.
Air India Flight 182
The worst air disaster associated with Canada and one of the worst in history was the terrorist bombing of Air India Flight 182 on 23 June 1985. En route from Toronto to Mumbai, the plane crashed into the North Atlantic off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 on board. Most of the victims were Canadians. The incident resulted in major increases in airport security. Later that year (one of the worst for accidents in aviation history) a chartered DC-8 carrying 256 passengers, 248 of them US soldiers, crashed after takeoff from Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador. All were killed in the worst air disaster over Canadian soil. Disturbing reports of the aircraft’s previous record of mechanical difficulties followed the crash.
Swissair Flight 111
Swissair Flight 111 is etched into the memories of many Canadians. On 2 September 1998, the flight, en route from New York City to Geneva, Switzerland, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. All 229 on board died, four of whom were Canadian. Thousands rallied to support the recovery effort, which included local fishermen, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Canadian Forces, the RCMP and the US Navy.
Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752
On 8 January 2020, a surface-to-air missile struck Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752 soon after the plane took off from Tehran, Iran. All 176 people on board died. The victims included 57 Canadians and 29 permanent residents. Many Iranian Canadians lost friends and family members. Iran’s government at first denied any role in the disaster. However, three days after the crash, its military admitted to shooting down the plane by accident. The attack had occurred in the context of growing tensions between the United States and Iran. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that Canada, working with other countries, would complete a full investigation.
A number of other commercial airline crashes have occurred. Several of these have claimed dozens of lives. Some have involved faulty aircraft. Others were collisions between aircraft or collisions with ground vehicles. The cause of a crash sometimes remains unknown. However, progress in the design of automatic recording devices (black boxes) has greatly improved the investigation of aircraft accidents.
Some disasters are notable for reasons other than the number of deaths. Twenty-three people were killed on 9 September 1949 when a Canadian Pacific Airlines DC-3 crashed near Saint-Joachim, Quebec, from a bomb explosion on board. Joseph-Albert Guay and two accomplices were convicted and hanged. The goal of their plot had been to murder Guay’s wife, one of the passengers. (See Sault-au-Cochon Tragedy.)
On 30 October 1974, a Lockheed Electra plane belonging to Panarctic Oils crashed at Rea Point, Northwest Territories (now Nunavut). This was Canada’s worst accident involving a non-commercial aircraft. Thirty-two of the thirty-four people aboard died.
The worst crash in Canada’s modern air force occurred on 30 October 1991. A 435 Squadron C-130 Hercules transport aircraft crashed near CFS Alert, Northwest Territories (now Nunavut), during a resupply mission. Five people died. The epic rescue of 13 survivors in Arctic twilight and terrible weather was noted for its heroism.