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The Salvage

The Epic River Journey - Towing a B-17 Down the Ashuanipi River

While raising the aircraft was completed successfully, the project was not yet finished as we still had to move the aircraft to the site where it could be remove from the water, disassembled and trucked to Labrador City. A host of factors require attention, evaluation and resolution in order to plan and accomplish the tow successfully.

The Tow

The tow is the fuselage and wing structure of a B-17. The length of the fuselage is approximately 34 feet while the wingspan is over 90 feet without the wingtips. The weight of the aircraft in that configuration is about 19,000 pounds, but with an unknown amount of river silt inside the structure and some water remaining in the fuel tanks we were actually working with 26,000 to 30,000 pounds, or 15 tons. With the exact weight and distribution unknown, the center of gravity and buoyancy on the lift bags had to be determined in the field. Final placement of the lift bags for floatation resulted in an asymmetrical configuration that produced unusual towing and drag characteristics.  Securing of the towline to the aircraft structure had to be carefully selected in order not to cause damage to the valuable structure of the wing spars.

The River

For many of us there is a very subtle difference between lakes and rivers in the waterways of Labrador. Our course starts in the area of the Ashuanipi River that has been named “Bomber Run” and then follows the river down into Birch Lake, back into the Ashuanipi River and then into the Smallwood Reservoir.

The course looks like a large number of “Z”s and “W”s strung together and there is limited information on the shoals and currents. During the time of the expedition the water level was unusually high that resulted in good depth of water at several points where our passage could possibly be blocked. The heighten water level also covered many familiar shorelines and created new dangerous shoals to be avoided.  We required a river guide with an expert knowledge of the intricacies of our passage and the affects of the currents and weather.


The weather window of opportunity to recover the aircraft is very small in this part of the country. Bob and Mark had originally planned to make reconnaissance dives on the aircraft in mid-July, but had to forgo them because the river was still covered with ice. Cold weather, storms that would bring ice and snow start early in September, leaving August as the only month the recovery could be possibly done. Strong winds build quickly and wind waves easily develop to three and four feet and even higher. While several of the guide boats are capable of navigating the passage in those kinds of conditions, attempting to tow the aircraft would be foolhardy and impossible.


A Seattle area newspaper reporter wrote in one article that once we had the plane recovered from the bottom we would use three tugboats to tow the aircraft. One normally considers tugboats to be large diesel engines with a hull wrapped around them ranging from 60 to 150 feet in length and capable of 1,000 to 10,000-horse power. There are no such craft available in Labrador and even if there were, they would require deeper water than is available in the Ashuanipi River. We had to be able to work with the vessels available, vessels of opportunity as they are often referred to.

The Silver Dolphin would be our prime mover. It is a custom guide boat, 28 feet in length, 8 feet in beam and powered by two 200 hp outboard motors. It is not designed for towing and we had to improvise towing bitts by lashing two 2 x 8 planks to the after rail. This placed the tow point only inches in front of the pivot for the outboards, reducing our ability to steer almost nothing.

We would be relying on the other two boats, small fiberglass pleasure craft, 16 and 18 feet in length with inboard/outboard engines of 125 and 175 hp to help us maneuver the tow.

The boats were provided by Northern Lights Lodge, the same outfitter that provided our campsite and site support in the field. Fuel would be cached for us at Northern Lights Lodge, approximately midway between “Bomber Run” and Lobstick.


Our boat crews consisted of experienced guides that were intimately familiar with the river and were also skilled waterman.

Rick Burt would run the Silver Dolphin and be our river pilot.  Tony Stead, Sandy Ryan and Lee Cutler would crew the other two boats.

Mark Allen, having broad experience with tugs, barges and towing, would be the tow master. However, as Mark explained to the team: “This has never been done before. We are working with an unusual tow in unusual circumstances. The learning curve will be steep for everyone and everyone will need to be patient and ready to help solve the challenges ahead.”

The dive team was split up amongst the boats and aircraft; Zak and Gordy would be in the assist boats, Mark would be on the towboat and John would ride the B-17. Hamilton Halford would also ride the B-17 while Don, Joey and Roy would be aboard the boat. Gary Shaw Senior and Junior would follow along in the aluminum fishing boats to provide additional assistance as necessary.

Salvage gear that might be needed during the trip was split up among the craft.  One of the air compressors was placed aboard the aircraft so that the lift bags could be refilled as necessary. A kedge and Danforth anchor were also rigged to the plane and ready for immediate use if necessary.