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The Salvage

Sunday, August 29, 2004

The morning was filled with activity as equipment and personal gear was packed and loaded aboard the boats. Even though the wind was still coming from the north, the weather reports continued to indicate good weather and it was decided to commence the tow of the B-17 to Lobstick.

The boats were boarded at 11:00am and we started the process of hooking up the towline to the silver Dolphin and the 18 Stingray that would be our assist boat.

One of the unresolved questions was how we were going to recover or cast of the two 100 pound anchors holding the aircraft in the river current. Gordy Forguson provided the answer by donning his dive gear and sent one of the anchors to the surface via lift bag and slipping the cable on the second anchor. Gordy was recovered by the other boat and then went ahead to check a critical passage down river from us to make sure it was clear of tree limbs and debris. That passage of the river was only a foot or two deeper than the 5-foot draft of the B-17 and lift bags. Tree limbs, sharp rocks and other debris in that passage could cause disaster.

With the plane hooked up to the Silver Dolphin, we pulled upstream against the current to assist with the anchor recovery. The plane responded nicely and obediently fell in line right behind the towboat.  The time was 11:45am and with the plane released from the anchors we were now under way. We turned down river and pulled south to clear the lower mouth of the run.

As we pulled with the current, instead of against it, the B-17 veered off to our right and seemed to want to ride well out on our starboard side. After a number of adjustments with no results, it was determined that we would have to add a second towline from the aircraft to the Silver Dolphin. The second towline was secured to the lower beam of the forward main spar and then looped around the propeller hubs of number 1 and 2 engines. The line was then passed to the crew on the towboat and pulling was resumed.  This time the plane fell into line.  The two towlines were secured to the improvised tow bitts by several round turns and then were tended by Don Brooks and Joey Hand.  Changing the length of either one of the lines would cause the boat to slowly turn to either port or starboard depending upon the line eased out.

As we proceeded we experimented with our maneuverability to learn what actions of towlines and boats would work.

About this time Gordy returned from his reconnaissance dive and reported that all was clear.

Rick advised us that the wind waves on Birch Lake were 4 feet, but were moderating during his passage up to us that morning. The tow continued onward and we all continued to learn how to best handle turns as well as straight and steady towing.

The first few turns were gentle and allowed plenty of room for us. Several hours into the passage there were many more turns that were much more demanding with very narrow margins for error. On several occasions it appeared that the northerly wind would blow us close to a lee shore full of rocks and snags that could tear up our lift bags and leave us stranded. The team had worked hard to come this far and they were determined that the plane would reach Lobstick without incident. There were at least 6 occasions where it appeared that were going aground that the combined actions of the group moved us out of danger and back into safe waters.

In the late afternoon we sent the smaller boat to the Northern Lights Lodge for fuel and food. They returned with dinner and fuel that was shared between the crew and the boats.

The progress was excruciatingly slow. GPS indicated that we were making between .8 and 1.5 knots. The hopes of a quick trip evaporated and we all realized this was going to be a long, long trip. Keeping a straight course continued to be difficult as we continued on the steep learning curve of handling this unique tow. We were significantly adding to our actual distance run by the zigzag course we managed even though trying to pull straight and steady. We would certainly not be in any danger of being torpedoed by U-boats, but our little convoy was in the inland waterways of Labrador and not in the Atlantic off Newfoundland where the U-boats did prowl during the war.

The waves that had been 4 feet tall on Birch Lake that morning had flattened out to a wonderful calm as we continued towing into the later evening hours. The winds had also calmed and had shifted to the south, heralding good weather. The team was treated to a beautiful sunset and then another phenomenal display of northern lights.

With the radar aboard the Silver Dolphin, Rick continued to pilot the tow into the darkness as we continued passage across Birch Lake.