Down Memory Lane - The High Flying Vernon Tigers
Down Memory Lane Articles - by Stan Shillington
The Vernon Tigers had just captured the Canadian Senior "B" lacrosse title, President's Cup, and were flying high. And, then, their moment of jubilation came crashing down in flames. LITERALLY!
Happily, though, the team survived to play another day.
The DC-3, transporting the victorious team home from Winnipeg on September 8, 1976, caught fire and was forced to crash-land in a farmer's corn patch on the outskirts of Pincher Creek, Alberta.
Incredibly, everyone managed to scramble to safety before the entire plane was engulfed in flames.
Not knowing what was going on inside the plane, the Tigers continue their victory celebrations on the plane trip home.
"I saw the pilot leave the cockpit and race to the back of the plane", explained BCLA coach clinician Terry Mosdell. "There were flames coming out of the rear and you couldn't see much due to the smoke in the plane."
"In another 30 seconds, all 26 of us would have been burned, trapped in the plane," recalled Don Kendall, one of the Vernon players, after the incident. "The pilot later told us that it is only a thousand to one chance to get out of a burning plane."
The Vernon club was in a partying mood -- after all, the Tigers had just won the Canadian championship -- when the boys climbed aboard the DC-3 for the flight back to British Columbia.
The aircraft, owned by Flightcraft Ltd. of Kelowna, made a short refuelling stop at Lethbridge and was again on its way. Less than 30 minutes later, warning lights suddenly flashed the threat of a fire in the rear of the passenger cabin near the washroom.
Pilot Barry Lapointe immediately issued a May Day distress signal and was advised to try to land at the Pincher Creek airport. Then, the plane disappeared from the radar screen.
Word immediately went out that the DC-3 had crashed; however, Lapointe, knowing he would not be able to make it to the airport, dropped the plane from 12,000 feet in just four minutes and put it down in a farmer's field.
In no time the plane decended 12,000 feet and bounced off the ground a few times before coming to a stop. Before the plane could stop the door opened and the Tigers were jumping out of the plane.
"If it had been any other plane than a DC-3, you couldn't have done it," Lapointe later said of his 85-mile-an-hour landing on an unlevel terrain.
The cabin by now was full of smoke, the players sprawled gasping on the floor. But team manager Wolfgang Catcher was able to jerk open the rear door and everyone clambered to safety.
"I was the first one out of the plane," said Mosdell. "The only thing I could think about was getting my two new lacrosse sticks out of the plane."
Moments later, the entire plane was engulfed.
The players lost their equipment and most of their valuables, but escaped relatively unhurt.
Police and rescue workers were soon on the scene. Later, the survivors took Lapointe and co-pilot Bill Jurome to a nearby tavern and toasted their heroes.
There was a curious, if not somewhat spiritualistic, anecdote to the crash story.
Alberta Blanchard, mother of Vernon player Brian Blanchard, had a premonition of disaster a few hours before the aircraft went down in flames.
The New Westminster woman was jarred awake at 5 a.m. by "a dream of death." Unable to go back to sleep, Mrs. Blanchard walked the floor for several hours before telephoning The Columbian newspaper.
Writer Don Cannon reported:
"She sounded extremely worried. I didn't really know what she wanted to talk about. She kept asking me if I thought Brian would be able to get back., to his teaching job in Williams Lake on time.
"I told her that there was no reason he shouldn't. He was with the rest of the team waiting in Winnipeg to catch a plane back to Vernon.
Mrs. Blanchard rang off after saying she knew she shouldn't worry, but she still had a nagging doubt in her mind.
Six hours later, the plane went down. Brian Blanchard lost his clothes, money and shoes but was able to call home to report that he was in good condition.
The entire encounter with death did nothing to frighten the Vernon Tigers away from lacrosse. The team defended its Canadian title successfully in 1977 and then celebrated its third consecutive championship in 1978.
Lacrosse players are a hardy lot -- mothers, too.