Memories of ‘secretive operation’ in Arctic

Birthday flight reminds Air Force veteran Darryl Catton of North Pole mission

Squeezing into a Murphy Renegade aircraft brings back memories for Darryl Catton, 79.

Not because he’s particularly attached to the aircraft, its tandem style or open cockpit, but because it reminds him of when he used to fly planes in Canada’s Arctic.

It was 1957 and the Cold War was starting to ramp up.

Catton – an 18-year-old rookie in the Royal Canadian Air Force – was tasked with flying materials to build a weather base in Alert, Nunavut for the RCAF, or so he thought.

He would routinely fly from an U.S. base in Thule, Greenland to Alert until the radio towers and prefab buildings were built.

Catton was one of the first ‘chosen frozen,’ a nickname given to those who worked in Alert for the RCAF.

“When we went up there we were told it was a weather base,” Cattan said, who was at King George Airpark Wednesday to fly the Renegade. “It was actually a listening post. Until about 10 years ago it was not known what it actually was…

“Probes through the ice and everything. In 1957, if you could imagine.”

Catton recalled another memory from his time in Alert, however this mystery was never solved.

In July 1950 – seven years before Catton stepped foot in Alert – there was a terrible airplane crash that killed nine people.

Catton said Alert did not have a runway and used the ice to take off and land. The ice was starting to break up.

RCAF was building a weather base and would parachute items out of the aircraft to a crew waiting below.

“They flew over and parachuted this stuff out, it caught around the stabilizer, which holds the tail, and it went into the ground, they all died,” Catton said.

When Catton arrived in 1957, a crew – which he was not part of – was tasked with digging up and relocating the remains so they could widen the runway.

Catton said it’s unclear where the cremated remains are.

Catton said many people in Alert are aware of the plane crash, but few know the true story about the bodies. Currently, he said, the graves are marked with crosses at the end of the runway.

“They know about the plane crash but they don’t know about the project in 1957 because that was hush hush because it was a top secret listening post, not a weather station as we were led to believe.”

Catton said he’s contacted the military in Ottawa but was unable to confirm the location of the bodies, he said there’s not much of a record because it was a secretive operation.

“We don’t know the true story,” he said.

“We know the graves are there now, but whether the bodies are still in there or were they really taken out by their loved ones. You can’t do that unless you have military approval.”

The memories are just part of the experience of Catton’s tradition of taking a flight on his birthday, his children buy him a gift certificate for the flight every year.