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Left for dead

Winnipeg flying ace survived war and then -- more miraculously -- wilderness plane crash

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Sitting on the side of a lake in the wilderness, watching a search plane disappear into the distance, Bill McKenzie knew he was in trouble.

Not that McKenzie, 25, hadn't been in trouble already on that July 23, 1946 day. He had already spent 23 days lost in the wilderness in northwestern Ontario, about 40 kilometres north of Elliot Lake, after ditching his experimental fighter jet into a lake, kilometres off course and nowhere near a road.

Now, with only lake water and ripening woodland berries to sustain him, and being attacked non-stop by mosquitoes and black flies, McKenzie had to make a decision.

"Their training was to stay with the plane and he did that," his daughter, Joan Braithwaite, said during a recent phone interview from her home in southern Ontario.

"But when he saw the plane fly over and leave without seeing him, he figured he'd better do something or he was going to die out there.

"He began walking through the bush. Luckily for him, when he got to another lake, he saw a fisherman. He took his shirt off and started waving it.

"The guy probably thought my dad was crazy."

It was 68 years ago this month, born-and-raised St. Vital resident McKenzie, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, disappeared from the skies over northwestern Ontario and sparked a massive search.

The search -- and McKenzie's miraculous rescue 27 days after he disappeared and 19 days after the search was called off and he was declared dead -- generated headlines around the world.

Now the story of McKenzie's survival is the subject of a special exhibit at the Western Canada Aviation Museum, which runs until next May.

The exhibit, Into the Jet Age, tells McKenzie's story, including his Second World War exploits, followed by his postwar crash and survival. The exhibit also provides information about the Gloster Meteor, one of the world's first fighter jets.

Paul Balcaen, the museum's exhibits manager, said the Meteor was introduced in 1944 and McKenzie, who until then had flown Spitfires, was one of its first pilots and the first Canadian to fly it.

"He said there's no way that plane will fly because there are no props and his commander said just get in," Balcaen said.

"Soon he was able to shoot down a V-1 bomb and that wasn't easy."

The V-1 flying bomb, also known to the Allies as the buzz bomb or doodlebug, was a German pulse-jet-powered predecessor of the cruise missile.

Balcaen said after the war, McKenzie was one of only three Canadian pilots who could fly the Meteor and he had been taking it through winter experiments in the months before he started flying to an air show in Hamilton.

He said it wasn't McKenzie's fault the plane's oxygen system failed and the auxiliary fuel tank leaked.

In fact, Balcaen said engineers would have said McKenzie should never have survived to even spend weeks in the wilderness.

"Engineers had said the plane couldn't fly on one engine or no engines and it would spin," he said.

"But McKenzie said he looked for a small lake, because if it was a larger one he thought he might drown trying to swim to shore, and he glided into the lake. He said he landed smoothly on the water. All the damage on the plane happened later when they recovered it and had to take it through the woods.

"He said he got out, pulled his survival pack out, and jumped into the lake and started swimming to shore."

Braithwaite said just a few metres from shore the survival kit sank and her dad couldn't find it.

"He only had a lighter, which didn't work for a couple of days, a nail file and $150 cash," she said.

"He always told us that $150 doesn't do much good when you're in the bush."

Martha Paul, McKenzie's younger sister and a Winnipeg resident, said she got married a week before her brother disappeared.

"He couldn't come to the wedding because he was going off to this air show," Paul said.

"Then he disappeared and nobody knew what happened. We all kept up hope, but it was getting worse when it got to nearly a month.

"He looked like a wild man when he was found."

Paul said she's not sure why her brother wanted to fly planes during the war, but that's the reason he enlisted.

"When the war was declared, he was in high school and working out what he'd do with his life," she said.

"Everybody was joining up, so he did too, but the only one he would go in was the air force. Maybe it's because he had a couple of close friends in the Air Force. He really loved the Air Force."

Paul said her brother's disappearance was especially tough on their mother and stepdad.

"(McKenzie) had gone all through the war and survived and then this happened," she said.

"(McKenzie's stepdad) kept walking the rail lines in the area," Braithwaite said. "He never gave up. He was still walking the rail lines when my dad was found."

 

Braithwaite said luck was with her dad several times during the weeks-long incident. He lost consciousness when his oxygen system failed him while the plane was aloft and, although the aircraft went off course by about 320 kilometres, he was awake in time when it ran out of fuel and he had to guide it to a splash landing before swimming to shore.

Even not leaving the crash site for more than three weeks turned out to be a good move, she said. It had been raining the previous few weekends so no fishermen were at Laurentian Lodge, which is still located on the north end of Flack Lake, where McKenzie was found.

"If he had gone through the bush earlier he wouldn't have been found by a fisherman so who knows where he would have wandered to next?"

Braithwaite said her dad lost 21 kilograms.

"He fought with his weight through the years, and he would always say to lose weight he'd have to get lost in the woods again," she said laughing.

Braithwaite said she has been to the area only once -- when the Ontario government opened the 20-kilometre McKenzie hiking trail in Mississagi Provincial Park in the early 1990s. The trail retraces McKenzie's steps through the wilderness between Helenbar Lake and Flack Lake.

McKenzie died in January 1986. Braithwaite said her dad would be "so tickled and honoured by this exhibit.

"The military quashed the whole engine-failure issue to put in the files it was pilot error. He kind of took the blame for something that wasn't his fault.

"To be honoured like this just means the truth has finally come out. He has been recognized and he should be recognized."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2014 A6

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