A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

June 2014 

Real Story, but No Movie

This story has all the makings of a fictional movie. But it is a true story, full of tragedy, irony, heroism and surprises. It is an example of reality surpassing anything that could be conceived by a scriptwriter. There are readers who will recall the major parts of the incident, but because it happened twenty seven years ago, much of the details have been forgotten. Anyone under the age of thirty five has probably never even heard of it. This is about a plane crash in Northern Alberta that killed six people, including the leader of a provincial political party. But four others survived, lost in the cold, snow-covered bush. They were seriously injured and facing the real possibility of death before searchers could find them. Three of them owe their lives to an unlikely savior, a convict who was on that plane, guarded by a cop taking him to jail.

October 19, 1984 was cold and wet, fairly typical in a Northern Alberta winter. That dark night, a Piper Navajo with ten souls on board crashed into the side of a snow-covered, forested hill in zero visibility as the pilot was searching for the airport at High Prairie. It was a single-pilot IFR flight bound for the uncontrolled airport with an NDB for a navigation aid. Using “dead reckoning” to estimate his distance from the beacon, the pilot mistakenly descended too early, well before crossing that beacon, and contacted the terrain twenty miles from the airport.

Aircraft similar to the one in the story

The crash tore the wings off and left the fuselage broken apart. Fortunately there was no fire. Four people survived, three of those were trapped. The only one with just minor injuries was a 27 year old petty ex-convict named Paul Archambault. He quickly exited the aircraft, and plowed through deep snow to put some distance between himself and the fuel-soaked scene. The RCMP officer who was escorting Archambault to face some misdemeanor charges in Grand Prairie was unconscious inside the aircraft, buried in debris, twisted metal, snow and dirt. His decision earlier to remove the prisoners handcuffs for the flight, ultimately saved his life. Archambault briefly considered running to escape, but quickly realized he wouldn’t get far in the snow, the bush and in the dark.

The second survivor to exit the upside-down fuselage was a 49 year old man, bleeding from his battered face and head, struggling to stand on injured legs. Several ribs and at least one vertebra in his back were broken. His front teeth were missing. He had unbuckled the seat belt that held him hanging upside down and fallen to the ceiling. With the smell of avgas heavy in the air, he pushed himself along toward an opening where the fuselage was ripped apart. There he fell heavily in the deep snow. Archambault had no idea this helpless, injured soul was a cabinet minister in the provincial government of Premier Peter Loughheed.
Meantime, the young pilot, in serious condition with chest, hand and facial injuries, a collapsed lung, internal bleeding and a head injury, also found himself hanging upside down in an open space where the cockpit and nose of the plane had been torn away. Finding it almost impossible to breath, he managed somehow to extricate himself from the wreckage and was able to plow his way through the deep snow to where the politician was already leaning against the fuselage.

Archambault had returned to the airplane by that point, and told the two dazed and injured survivors that they had to get the others out. He made his way back into the airplane to find six trapped, broken, lifeless bodies. The police officer escorting the prisoner was Scott Deschamps. The pair had been traveling together for most of the day on a round-about trip to get to Grande Prairie where Archambault faced some misdemeanor charges. Now as the cop lay trapped and smothering under snow, dirt and debris, his body twisted and compressed so he could barely breathe, Deschamps heard someone moving above him. Crippled with fear he called out. A voice responded, “Are you the police officer?”
It took supreme effort, digging and pulling to extract the broken body of the policeman from the wreckage. Somehow as Archambault dug with his bare hands and Deschamps struggled to the edge of his physical and mental pain threshold, he was finally freed.

With the police officer out of immediate danger, Archambault joined the other two men who had managed to tramp out a small clearing in the snow about 20 meters from the plane. Using a cardboard box and a lighter, they had a small fire going. Archambault was the only one of the four who at that point was thinking clearly. The others were dazed and confused, and it fell to the prisoner to gather debris and broken branches to keep the fire going.

The policeman’s brain was slowly clawing back to consciousness as he sat near the fuselage finding himself unable to stand, and could breathe only with extreme difficulty. Archambault returned to carry and drag the cop to the fire. He had pulled some clothing from suitcases in the snow to make a spot to keep the man warm.

As the ELT transmitted its signal into night, the search & rescue operation was underway by about 11 o’clock. Visibility in the snow and fog was down to zero much of the time, but the search plane was able to pinpoint the ELT. Because of the cloud cover, rescuers were unable to jump to the scene, where the three helpless, broken men, a politician, a pilot, and a policeman, were relying on the prisoner to keep them alive that cold winter night. None would have survived the following day without rescue

Archambault was a petty thief, an alcohol and drug abuser, and faced charges of criminal mischief in Grande Prairie. More of a misguided individual, he was never classified as a dangerous offender. He had done some time in jail, but was not a hardened convict. He seemed to take the situation in stride that night, likely not understanding completely the seriousness of it all. Spending a cold night in the outdoors wasn’t exactly a new experience for him. Other than the cop who was guarding him, Archambault didn’t know or care who the others were. Through the cold, dark hours it was Archambault who kept spirits up and the fire burning. The irony of the situation somehow escaped him.

By mid-morning the following day, a search and rescue helicopter had evacuated all four survivors, fourteen hours after the crash. They were all hospitalized, and eventually recovered quite well from their injuries. Predictably, the incident generated national headlines for several weeks. The leader of the Alberta NDP, Grant Notley, was one of the notable victims who died. Five others including bureaucrats, business people and a native woman were also killed. The petty criminal was labeled a hero, and enjoyed media attention along with recommendations from politicians and police that his charges be dropped. The courts went easy on him and the notoriety helped Archambault turn his life around for a few years. But, six years after the accident, he had slipped back to his old habits of alcohol and drug use. He disappeared at some point in 1990. No one reported him missing. His body surfaced in a ditch beside a railroad track as the snow melted in the spring of 1991.

The legal proceedings took almost twenty years and included lawsuits against the air operator, the pilot and surprisingly, the federal government. Transport Canada was found 30% liable for the deaths based on having failed to sanction the airline for its repeated violations going back several years. In other words, TC was found guilty of not doing its job of protecting the flying public.

The whole story of this tragic event is written in a fascinating book entitled “INTO THE ABYSS”. I have never met the author, Carol Shaben, but I don’t hesitate to recommend her book. She writes a riveting account of the flight, the crash, and the night of horror as the survivors struggled to stay alive. Her descriptions of the main characters bring them to believable life. Pilots will enjoy the book which is factual, non-glossy, and speaks our language. Ms. Sheban follows up the incident as she relates the details of the story through the long period of time after the headlines settled down. She did her homework. More important, she has a personal connection to the event. Her father was one of the survivors, the politician Larry Shaben. At the time he was Alberta’s provincial housing minister. He lived until he was seventy three, and died of cancer.

This accident had lasting consequences on the families of the deceased, the survivors and on the way Transport Canada operates. The federal government and T.C. bore part of the responsibility. Several northern communities were shaken by the loss of prominent citizens, and the Alberta government mourned two of its MLS’s. A drifter and convicted criminal earned the respect of the nation and a second chance to turn his life around. There are many reasons why this story won’t be forgotten.

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