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Flight 1363 remembered 35 years later

By Adam Riley Mar 1, 2024 | 5:36 PM

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Thirty-five years ago this month Dryden made headlines around the world when Air Ontario Flight 1363 crashed less than a minute after taking off from the regional airport, forever changing the lives of those involved.

On March 10th, 1989 the plane held a noon stopover in Dryden, as part of a flight from Thunder Bay to Winnipeg.

While the aircraft refueled, took on new passengers, and let others off, snow was falling in the area and built up on the body of the plane.

Issues with the Fokker F28-1000, including the inability to shutdown and restart the engines due to an unserviceable auxiliary power unit and no external power unit at the airport, this forced the pilots to keep the engines running while it refueled and prevented the application of deicer on the plane.

As the aircraft attempted to takeoff it was unable to achieve lift and struck trees shortly after takeoff, disintegrating upon impact and burst into flames, killing 21 of the 65 passengers and three of the four crew onboard.

This lead to a massive response from emergency crews and even those who lived nearby, which Dryden & District Museum Coordinator Michelle Walter says became a moment of a community pulling together with passion and empathy.

“They brought in their first aid knowledge, personal vehicles for transportation, brought in their own equipment and clothes, took off layers of their own clothes to provide survivors with.”

File Photo

Following the disaster an inquiry was launched which resulted in an overhaul of procedures and regulations to the aviation industry which continue to this day.

As the 35th anniversary approaches a multi-phase endeavor is underway to honour the memories of those impacted by the disaster, following a donation by aviation enthusiast Garth Twitchell.

“He spoke numerous times in our project meetings on how this significant this event was in Canada and internationally,” says Walter.

“Of course I like to reference ‘us’ personally as a city, and how a significant landmark should be made that acknowledges the victims survivors, responders, and honours their legacy.”

Currently, there is a memorial at the crash site located just off of MacArthur Road, however while locals may know of where it is, Twitchell, while touring across Canada, found it difficult to locate and access for the average visitor.

Twitchell then sought out former Dryden Mayor Greg Wilson with his concerns and a proposal, which he backed with the $10,000 donation, a proposal so convincing Wilson and his wife, Debbie, matched the donation.

The project, Walter says is still in its early stages with research now underway to help the working group figure out how it wants the site to look.

However, last month Twitchell succumbed to cancer, but his obituary says the project will continue on through collaboration with both the City of Dryden and his family.

Another aspect of the project is an oral history component to supplement a new exhibit on the tragedy which opened Friday at the museum.

It involves gathering stories from anyone who was impacted by the crash to recognize their own personal experience and recollections.

“Everyone has copies of the Commission of Inquiry report that has all the factual content information but we’re looking for some additional contextual information.” Walter explains.

“There are people within the community and all over Canada that were either supposed to be on the plane, were on the plane and survived, families of those individuals who unfortunately did not survive the crash, and then first responders and support responders in our community.”

She says some are open to coming forward and talking to researchers, but notes not everyone is comfortable to tell their story just yet, and may never feel comfortable to do so.

Personally Walter, who was born in Dryden nine years after the incident, says the need for the exhibit, the oral history project and the memorial is for the preservation of history.

“While so many people in our community responded and had their own recollections…it was such a tragic incident everyone afterwards stopped talking about it. Everyone wanted time to process on their own, which everyone has a right to do. But that resulted in so many of our future generations not knowing about the incident at all.”

She adds until she was hired at the museum, she had no knowledge of Flight 1363 and its impact on the community, which she calls quite unfortunate as it was such a significant moment in Dryden’s history and would never have understood without having delved into the research.

Records show survivors from the crash began arriving at the hospital by ambulance, police cruiser and helicopter within the hour, prompting every nurse, doctor and staff member who could be called in, rushing to the hospital, where they assessed and treated 47 people by 6 p.m. that evening.

“We were not a town with a trauma centre at the hospital, I mean we only had two ambulances at the time, we’re a small community that matches our size and yet people pulled together so quickly.”

The exhibit at the museum runs until May 10th.