The Crash of the Hercules at the North Pole: Arthur Black, Robert Manson Lee, and My Favourite Hour of Radio, Ever

The Crash of the Hercules at the North Pole: Arthur Black, Robert Manson Lee, and My Favourite Hour of Radio, Ever.


A devotee of CBC Radio since the early 1970s, I have favourite moments fashioned by the likes of Peter Gzowski, Michael Enright, Barbara Frum, Stuart McLean, and Shelagh Rogers. But most memorable of all is an hour hosted by the award-winning humourist Arthur Black, who died at age 74 on February 21, 2018. Notably, that hour of radio, as I recall, was almost—but not completely—without humour.

It occurred during the summer of 1993 when Black’s popular, ninety-minute, Saturday morning show, Basic Black, was well into its twenty-year run (1983-2002). That exceptional listening experience was an interview with journalist Robert Mason Lee, who was promoting his new book, Death and Deliverance: The Haunting True Story of the Hercules Crash at the North Pole.

My former wife, Colleen, and I were tuned in as we drove north on Vancouver Island from Victoria to Merville, outside Courtenay, where we purchased a German shepherd puppy later that day. The interview explored the before and after details concerning the crash of a CC-130 Hercules transport plane on October 30, 1991, near Canadian Forces Station Alert on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island.  Home to about 200 CF personnel, Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world.[1]

Colleen and I were riveted and brought to tears by what we heard—an amazing story about Arctic weather, flight anomalies, courage, sacrifice, survival, and extended rescue efforts that are almost beyond belief. Black and Lee were amazed and moved, too, for their examination of what had occurred was not only deeply respectful, it was also reverent.

“The sky is a wily trickster, ready to lure you into a trap at every turn,” Lee writes in Death and Deliverance.[2] This, along with Captain John Couch’s decision to make “a visual approach” to Alert, rather than “an instrument landing”, were the main reasons he was “suckered” by “visual tricks” on that deceptively “clear night” and crashed ten miles short of Alert.[3]

Couch and four other crew were part of a semi-annual, ten-day mission to resupply Alert from the U.S. air base at Thule, Greenland, 420 miles to the southeast.[4] In addition to 24,000 pounds of diesel fuel, Couch’s Hercules was also transporting thirteen passengers who’d just made the eight-hour Armed Forces service flight from Trenton, Ontario, to Thule.[5]

With the crash, eleven “of the passengers were thrown clear of the fuselage.” The bulk diesel fuel container, ripped from its moorings, “was also thrown clear, and … burst open on impact with the ground”, soaking an enormous area and all the survivors, four of whom, including a crew member, died soon after.[6] The four surviving crew were “unhurt”, but one of them subsequently received second-degree burns from a fireball.[7] The remaining ten passengers were all badly injured.

Most of the survivors initially used an overturned wing for shelter; they later moved to the plane’s tail section.[8] Bob Thomson, the regional manager of CANEX, which supplied the store at Alert and all other CF shopping outlets around the world, and Sue Hillier, a hairdresser, had landed side-by-side and were too badly injured to be moved.[9] Couch and his first officer, Lieutenant Joe Bales, built a shelter around them.[10] They also “dug as much snow as possible away from their bodies” and wrapped them, as best they could, in four sleeping bags.[11]

The cold was “breathtaking…. almost inconceivable.”[12] With wind chill, the temperature reportedly varied from -50 to -66 degrees Celsius, or -92 Fahrenheit.[13] Couch, Bales, Sergeant Paul West, and Lieutenant Michael Moore (before he was injured) did what they could for the passengers and made repeated trips to check on Thomson and Hillier.[14] They were aided by the knowledge of one of the passengers, Captain Wilma de Groot, a recent medical school grad.[15] The crew were all in flight suits.[16] During the visit when Couch and Bales built the shelter, Hillier observed that Couch, a bald man, “was wearing nothing more than his polycotton flight suit and a cotton jacket—not even a hat—and his speech had become affected by the cold.”[17]

Later, during another visit, a grief-stricken Couch wept after confessing to Hillier that he was the pilot. He apologized repeatedly.[18] He died prior to the arrival of the rescuers.[19]

A MAJAID is a major air disaster. At the time, the CF search and rescue MAJAID plan “called for loading a Hercules aircraft with airborne troops, along with a medical and survival kit capable of tending eighty survivors.”[20]

Warrant Officer Fred Ritchie, team leader of the SARtechs—search and rescue technicians—based in Edmonton, learned of the MAJAID over the phone. “Herc down at Alert with eighteen souls on board”, he was told.[21] Two hours and fifty-five minutes after the crash, he and his team were airborne.[22] They arrived at Alert seven hours later. Bad weather precluded parachuting to the crash site as planned.[23]

Additional rescue flights were dispatched from CF bases in Edmonton, Trenton, Greenwood, Nova Scotia, and Gander, Newfoundland, as well as from American bases in Keflavik, Iceland, and Anchorage.[24] Most notable of these were a Hercules from Greenwood that carried a second SARtech team, this one led by Warrant Officer Arnie Macauley, whose younger brother, Major Marv Macauley, commanded the Hercules;[25] another Hercules from Edmonton that carried “a stripped-down Twin Huey helicopter”;[26] and a Labrador helicopter dispatched to Alert from Trenton, “an unsupported flight of 3,600 miles” that would take forty hours, require dangerous hot refueling, and had never been done before.[27]

Lee writes that “aged Labs simply did not fly forty hours without breaking down.”[28] With the help of two Aurora surveillance aircraft,[29] the Lab made it all the way to Eureka, the last stop before and a mere 240 miles from Alert, when it was advised to stand down as “SARtechs had penetrated the crash site” and other resources were available to extract the crash victims.[30]

After landing at Alert, Fred Ritchie and his SARtechs learned that there had been two overland attempts to reach the crash site from Alert. Both had failed due to “mechanical breakdowns and weather.”[31] An Arctic blizzard had blown in, creating a white-out and necessitating a “button-up” where ropes are strung between buildings and all personnel are “locked inside and a rope perimeter” is established around the station.[32] Despite the terrible conditions, Ritchie and his team made a third overland attempt using two Bombardier Go-Tracks, fully tracked vehicles with enclosed cabins.[33]

When the Macauley brothers and the Greenwood SARtechs arrived at Thule, they phoned Alert and were advised “to get some rest.”[34] They expected they would not be needed, that another group of rescuers would reach the survivors, but four hours later they learned they were “back in the breach…. The winds were at right angles to the runway, thirty-five knots gusting to forty…. the maximum allowable crosswind was twenty-six knots.”[35] After weighing the situation, Marv Macauley decided to go for it. The takeoff was a close thing. He had to cut one engine and hope “the differential power would steer the Herc into the wind.”[36] The desperate gambit worked.

“What is rescue but an act of love?”[37]

Over the crash site, Marv saw the roof lights of Fred Ritchie’s two Go-Tracks some distance away. The Hercules established radio contact and provided critical directional information to the snow-blinded convoy on the ground.[38] Meanwhile, the American Hercules from Anchorage, which carried a team of para-rescue jumpers, arrived and circled above Marv’s Hercules.[39] The crash site was occasionally visible during moments when the weather cleared. “There were no signs of life.”[40]

SARtechs are courageous and more than a bit crazy. (This latter characteristic was the source of the rare humour during Black’s conversation with Lee.) Lee says SARtechs “are a breed apart.” They “work on mutual consent, not on orders…. [and they] tend to salute when they feel like it.” They “are the most highly decorated group of individuals in the military.”[41]

Their “rulebook forbids jumping in wind speeds above ten knots. It also forbids night jumps without illumination. It also forbids any jump below 2,000 feet.”[42]

The Americans found the conditions too inhospitable to jump. The Greenwood SARtechs decided otherwise, “even if it was practically a suicide mission…” Arnie Macauley was in the first group of six men to leave the plane. They jumped at one thousand feet and all were “injured but none debilitated.”[43] They were followed by a group of five that jumped at approximately 500 feet.[44] More than a ton of equipment was also dropped, but it was all lost “in the howling darkness.”[45]

Thirty-two and a half hours had elapsed since the crash when the SARtechs encountered Paul West, “the only survivor still lucid at the time of the rescue.”[46] The SARtechs cut the wind by using chutes to close the opening to the tail section of the crashed Herc. This and the presence of the rescuers had a telling effect.[47]

“Many of the survivors, returning to themselves, began to cry uncontrollably. Many of the SARtechs, without ceasing to work, cried with them, wrapping them in parachutes. Every survivor was in the severe, final stage of hypothermia, perched on the thin ledge between stupor and death.”[48] Not long after, Fred Ritchie’s Go-Tracks arrived, bringing with them the Edmonton SARtech team and critically needed heat, light, and shelter.[49]

Back at Alert, the Herc carrying the Twin Huey helicopter had arrived. “In Edmonton,” Lee writes, “it had taken a crew of sixteen people with heavy equipment eight hours to take [the Twin Huey] apart. In a battery shed in Alert, it took a team of six, poorly equipped, five hours to put it back together.”[50]

Sergeant Terry Sheppard, the lead airframe technician, had never seen anything like it. Aligning the two sixteen-foot, 230-pound rotor blades “is difficult, even with a precision jig”, which they didn’t have. They put the rotor hub “on a mattress and manhandled the blades into place…. They got it right, first time, on both blades.”[51] Equally miraculous was the fact that the Twin Huey passed its “shake-down flight around the airfield”, something that had never happened “the first time after a re-assembly.”[52]

“I have no doubt…. it was a higher power,” Sheppard said.[53]

The Twin Huey airlifted the first survivors out at 44:42 hours after the crash. Two and a half hours later, the crash site was clear of survivors and dead.[54]

The story of the Hercules crash is extraordinary in multiple ways. Wilma de Groot was a newlywed of six weeks’ standing as well as a new doctor.[55] Her husband, George, another doctor, was just finishing his internship at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. He was also a psychic who could tune into Wilma telepathically.[56] But after the crash, when she felt him “looking for her…. she slammed steel doors around her thoughts” and cut him off, something she’d never done before.[57]

Although George “did not communicate with her again until after the rescue,” Lee writes, “he had been alerted to her plight by her brother, Peter, who was in British Columbia at the time of the crash. He telephoned George, who was desperate at his inability to touch her mind, and said: ‘She’s alive. She’s broken her ankle and she’s in pain. But she’s alive.’ Peter had no way of knowing this by any scientifically valid means.”[58]

After the Arctic ordeal, Wilma learned that the night before she flew north from Trenton, “George’s parents had woken at the same time from a troubled sleep.” After determining that they’d had the same dream, they consulted “an old and valued family text…. a compendium of dreams and omens, brought from Ukraine.” They concluded the enormous dog they’d seen was “definitely” a fearsome wolf. “[T]hey had both, at the end of the dream, in the moment just before waking, seen blood upon the snow.”[59]

Sue Hillier’s mother, Marg, also had a dream that night. “She dreamed that she had seen herself die.”[60] She’d been put in a coffin, which had been placed in the ground and dirt had been shovelled on top. “It was cold, and utterly black, and the earth spilled onto her face.”[61]

Marg and Sue had coffee in the kitchen the next morning before Sue departed for the airport. Marg didn’t mention the dream, even though Sue sensed something was up.[62]

Sometime later, Marg was having another coffee in the kitchen “when Sue’s sister, Sandra, dropped a cup, then said: ‘She’s not dead. She’s alive.’ Sandra’s children, who were five and three years old, came into the kitchen and, out of the blue, asked the adults why their Auntie Susan was sleeping in the snow.”[63]

It was while Sue Hillier and Bob Thomson were entombed at the crash site that a real arctic wolf visited them. They didn’t know it was a wolf at first, only that an animal was outside. Bob heard it breathing “on the other side of the tarpaulin, inches from his face…. The beast pawed at the tarpaulin…, then began to scratch away at it. Bob felt a heavy paw against his face, and the dragging of claws against the heavy fabric”, which is when he realized it was a wolf.[64]

Momentarily, the animal stepped “over him, towards Sue. He heard her panicked whimpering, and the scratching noise of the wolf pawing at the snow.”[65] Then it left.

The wolf returned later. Sue, Lee writes, “felt it digging towards her hips and thighs, where the flesh was laid open to the bone.” She figured it could smell her blood.

“Its snout entered the cavity it had dug, and snuffled for the blood. She felt its breadth on her skin.

“It withdrew.

“Nothing happened for a while. Then it crept up her belly and chest. She felt its paws. It stopped, with its weight on her chest. She heard it panting.”[66]

Sue, Lee continues, “pulled the rag from her face…. She let out a scream.

“She opened her eyes, looked directly into his. He blinked, once, and pulled his head back; then he moved his nose towards her face. Sue pulled her head back in astonishment. They considered each other.

“A white arctic wolf, the most beautiful animal she had ever seen. His face was radiant, seeming to glow in the darkness…. There was a black flash running from his forehead down his nose.”[67]

Sue, who owned a husky with a black coat and white flash, was struck by the wolf’s markings: they were the exact opposite of those of her dog. She learned later that her dog experienced “great distress while she was away [and] suffered kidney failure, and died at about the same time that she saw the wolf.”[68]

Lee concludes Death and Deliverance by telling his readers that Sue’s “dog’s name was Angel.”[69]

As I recall, all of this and more was covered by Lee and Black during the spellbinding hour when they recounted these incredible events. Six or seven years after that interview, I met Black. He was a featured speaker at a conference I helped organize. He was just like I expected; his presentation perfectly matched his radio persona. He was also professional and earnest, intent on doing a good job. But my primary memory of Arthur Black will always be that on-air hour he spent with Robert Mason Lee and the star-crossed people of the Hercules crash at the North Pole.

Black wanted Basic Black to be about “ordinary people with extraordinary stories.”[70] In this, his program succeeded marvellously, never more than during that remarkable hour of heartfelt radio in mid 1993.

An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

  1. Robert Mason Lee, Death and Deliverance (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1992), 2, 1.
  2. Ibid., 47.
  3. Ibid., 29 (visual approach, instrument landing, clear night), 30 (visual tricks), xv (10 miles from Alert). The reference to night is because there was a “perpetual night sky” (24) at that time of year; the crash actually occurred at 4:25 in the afternoon. (xv)
  4. Ibid., 3.
  5. Ibid., 22 (diesel fuel), 11 (eight-hour flight), 2 (service flight).
  6. Ibid., 37, 38, re: deaths (40, 45, 69, 70).
  7. Ibid., 44 (unhurt), 98 (fireball).
  8. Ibid., xiii.
  9. Ibid., 1-2 (Thomson and CANEX), 4 (Hillier), 91 (side-by-side), 42-43 and 87 (Hillier’s injuries), 63-66, 87-88 (Thomson’s injuries).
  10. Ibid., xiii.
  11. Ibid., 89-90.
  12. Ibid., 66, 201.
  13. Ibid., 105, 201, 230, 182-183.
  14. Ibid., 202 (Couch “was in and out all the time”).
  15. Ibid., 11.
  16. Ibid., 39.
  17. Ibid., 89.
  18. Ibid., 154.
  19. Ibid., 205.
  20. Ibid., 56, 57.
  21. Ibid., 57, 58.
  22. Ibid., xv.
  23. Ibid., 109-110, 114-117.
  24. Ibid., xv.
  25. Ibid., 76 and caption to photo of Marv Macauley.
  26. Ibid., xv.
  27. Ibid., 108 (unsupported, never done before), 141 (hot refueling).
  28. Ibid., 108.
  29. Ibid., 111, 187, 189.
  30. Ibid., 252-253.
  31. Ibid., 161.
  32. Ibid., 103 (blizzard), 104 (white-out, button-up, locked inside), 9 (ropes between buildings).
  33. Ibid., 162, 101.
  34. Ibid., 191.
  35. Ibid., 192, 193.
  36. Ibid., 194.
  37. Ibid., 193.
  38. Ibid., xiii, 171, 211, 212.
  39. Ibid., 213.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid., 136 (breed apart), 161 (mutual consent), 137 (salute), 130 (decorated).
  42. Ibid., 230.
  43. Ibid., 227 (Americans), 229 (suicide mission), 231 (first group), 245 (one thousand feet), 237 (injured). Lee notes (82) that Marv Macauley “knew John Couch, had taught him tactical airlift, instructing him in such difficult manoeuvres as flying a Herc five feet off the ground. As for Paul West, Marv had flown rescue missions with the guy. So had Arnie. You don’t share those kinds of experiences without becoming good buddies.”
  44. Ibid., 237, 246.
  45. Ibid., 238.
  46. Ibid., 244 and photo caption.
  47. Ibid., 242.
  48. Ibid., 242-243.
  49. Ibid., 249.
  50. Ibid., 250.
  51. Ibid., 250, 251.
  52. Ibid., 251.
  53. Ibid., 252.
  54. Ibid., xv.
  55. Ibid., 12, 15.
  56. Ibid., 12.
  57. Ibid., 98.
  58. Ibid., 259.
  59. Ibid., 15, 16.
  60. Ibid., 11.
  61. Ibid.
  62. Ibid., 10.
  63. Ibid., 260.
  64. Ibid., 178, 179.
  65. Ibid., 179.
  66. Ibid., 225.
  67. Ibid., 226.
  68. Ibid., 261.
  69. Ibid.
  70. Rod Mickleburgh, “Beloved radio host saw humour in everything: Arthur Black, Broadcaster, Author, Humourist, 74,” Obituaries, The Globe and Mail, Saturday, March 3, 2018, B24.


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