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Today's date: Sunday December 21, 2014 Vol 47 Issue 51
   
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Valuing Our History

by Stephen Thorning

Crash near Fergus claimed life of glider pilot in 1958

Wellington County has been spared the tragedy of major air disasters, but there have been a few fatal crashes over the years.

Several of those, such as the ones involving Anson training flights during World War II, have been covered in this column. There have also been a couple of disasters involving gliders.

The A.V. Roe Company of Malton assembled a superb team of aeronautical engineers during and after World War II. In the 1950s the firm developed the advanced Avro Arrow fighter. Some of the engineers involved in that project were amateur pilots and glider enthusiasts.

A handful of those engineers, along with other glider pilots, were members of the Southwestern Ontario Soaring Association, originally based in the Toronto area. The club relocated to Brantford’s airport, a better location for gliding trips that would not interfere with heavy commercial traffic and new development around its first base, at Buttonville Airport.

On August 3, 1958, a group of the club’s glider pilots took part in an ambitious flight. The course was a triangular one: From the Brantford airport to Fergus, then southwest to St. Mary’s, then another turn to return to Brantford.

The course totalled about 150 miles, a significant distance and a severe test of the abilities of the pilots. The day was a favourable one for gliding: warm, sunny weather and no strong wind.

All began well, as powered planes towed the gliders into the sky. A number of Fergus residents spotted some of the gliders overhead. Most people thought they were from the local glider club, based at Dracon in West Garafraxa.

Several of the glider pilots encountered downdrafts in the Fergus area, causing them to lose altitude rapidly. The pilot of one of them, Norman Ring, apparently decided to land. There were no witnesses to his decent and attempted landing in a field at the east side of Fergus, so the explanations are only conjecture.

Ring, at 37, was a skilled aircraft engineer with A.V. Roe, and had been the designer of the Avro’s wings. For whatever reason, he had difficulty controlling his little glider as he attempted to land in a field near James Watson’s residence on St. Andrew Street East, about a half mile from the town. The glider struck an elm tree, causing it to twist around and break apart, with the rudder striking one of the wings. The fragile craft came to rest with part of the tail touching the ground, and the crumbled fuselage and wings tangled in the tree branches.

Norm Ring, badly injured by the crash into the tree, fell 10 feet to the ground. Authorities were soon on the scene, but by then Ring was quite dead, though his body showed few signs of injury. A couple of OPP constables guarded the site while Department of Transport officials began an investigation.

The press, in the form of editor Hugh Templin and photographer Jim Townsend of the News Record, were on the scene about the same time as the police, following a call from A.J. Youngblood, whose house faced the crash scene. Townsend supplied photographs to the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, which in turn circulated photographs to other papers through the wire photo service.  

Before taking to the sky at Brantford, Norm Ring had complained that he was not feeling well, and had taken some medication. His wife had been at the airport to see him aloft, and she had urged him to stay on the ground.

Ring may have become dizzy or disoriented due to his illness and the effects of the medication, or he may have blacked out momentarily, resulting in his striking the large elm tree.

Most knowledgeable observers believed that illness must have been the major factor, because Ring was not only a skilled aeronautical engineer, but also a skilled pilot of both motorized aircraft and gliders. He had served a term as president of the Toronto Soaring Association, as his club was known before the move to Brantford. He was a well known veteran in the gliding circles of Ontario.

On the other hand, two other glider pilots ran into trouble that afternoon in the Fergus area, so illness was unlikely to be the sole cause of Ring’s fatal crash.

One glider landed in a field on the farm of Campbell Richardson, on the northwest fringe of Fergus. The pilot in that case was not injured. He stated he had encountered strong downdrafts, and believed that he would be unable to maintain altitude. He chose to land in a safe place. A third glider made a successful emergency landing in West Garafraxa Township.

The day following the crash, a light powered plane landed in the field near the wreckage of Ring’s glider, and a couple of men began the unpleasant task of dismantling the wreckage. It was hauled away by a truck and trailer. Another crew with a truck loaded the stranded glider at the Richardson farm and hauled it away on the night of the emergency landing.

Though gliding dates to the 19th century, the hobby in Ontario was still young in 1958. The club of which Ring was a member, the largest in Canada, had only about 75 members, and dated only to 1939. Membership had been swelled during the mid-1950s by enthusiasts from Europe and England, where gliding then had a much larger following than in Canada.

At the time of Ring’s crash the club owned a half dozen aircraft, and members owned a further 10 gliders. The club had two Tiger Moths, which were used to tow the gliders aloft.

While covering the crash site, editor Templin and photographer Townsend almost missed another major story that same afternoon: the burning of the Fergus Box Veneer Company, which was located in a stone building that is now the site of the Fergus LCBO outlet.

The building, dating to the 1870s, had been built by Wilson, Bowman and Company for the manufacture of sewing machines.

The sewing machine business, after a couple of good years, suffered from the flooding of sewing machines onto the Canadian market, and soon closed. The building had a spotty history after that.

In the 20th century it was home of the Fergus Basket Factory, owned by C.J. Mistele, and from 1955, the Fergus Box Veneer Company, owned by Stan Baranski of Kitchener.

The fire began on the upper floor of the four-storey building, and soon gained headway due to wood stored there.

The Fergus and Elora brigades fought the blaze from the time it was discovered, at about 4pm, into the night. Hundreds of people gathered on the hill above the factory and across the Grand River to watch the show. The entire roof was burned off, and everything in the building suffered water damage. The business employed ten men. It was not a major industry, but nevertheless a welcome one in any small town.

Altogether, August 3, 1958 was a lively day in Fergus, and a tragic one.

 

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Stephen Thorning
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