The Ghost of Gananoque – ‘A Flying Boat in a Barn’

The Ghost of Gananoque, a Canadian Vickers Canso A (a license-built PBY Catalina), has resided for the past half century in this out-of-the-way ex-military hangar in Gananoque, Ontario. This mysterious aircraft is one of the last great 'aircraft in a barn' and is always well worth re-visiting as we will see here... (photo by Richard Mallory Allnutt)

The Ghost of Gananoque

by Richard Mallory Allnutt

Gananoque, Ontario is right in the heart of the St.Lawrence River’s magnificent Thousand Islands region. The small rural town, pronounced properly as ‘Ga-nah-knock-way’, teems with visitors during the summer season, many of them waiting to take one of the ‘three hour’ scenic river tours which stage from the dockside every 30 minutes or so. However, in aviation circles, Gananoque is also famous for being home to a rarely seen WWII-era Canadian Vickers Canso flying boat hidden away for decades in an old hangar at the airport nearby.

Finding the airport is another matter though, as my brother and I discovered. GPS will get you so far, but unless you are paying close attention, you will easily pass by the innocuous gravel road leading through the high corn fields which takes you closer to your goal. And even then, if you miss the poorly placed sign which faces against the direction of travel, you might not think to make that next left turn to your intended destination. There was no sense – at all – that an airfield, or even a hangar, lay beyond… it was just a dense wall of corn.

As my brother and I paused at the intersection, our imaginations couldn’t help but conjure that famous scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary film, North by Northwest, where a crop-duster biplane chases after Cary Grant’s character, attempting to assassinate him in the Illinois wheat fields. Chuckling at this thought, we made the turn, winding through the crops for a half mile or so until at last we saw what looked like a hangar, although a hangar unlike any I had ever seen before. The weatherbeaten structure was almost entirely clad in wooden shingles of the kind more commonly seen on a traditional Cape Cod dwelling, and its windows were shuttered with chip board sheeting. As externally changed as it was though, this was indeed an original military hangar which the Royal Canadian Air Force built in WWII to serve in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Although crops now obscure much of the view on the ground, Gananoque airport still retains its original BCATP triangular runway layout.

A recent aerial view of Gananoque Airport. (image via Google Earth)

The base served as a relief landing field for the Royal Air Force’s No.31 Service Flying Training School at nearby RCAF Kingston between 1940 and 1945. That being said, there are no obvious signs now of any prior military use at Gananoque. It more resembles a faded hippie hangout than anything else. Several cars were parked beside the hangar, and in a clearing beyond, there were a number of disheveled looking RVs, camper vans and tents.

A rather forlorn Piper Navajo Chieftain sits in the foreground, while a much more well-tended Cessna 182 is being prepared for flight just beyond. Very few of the aircraft at Gananoque looked like they had flown recently. (photo by Richard Mallory Allnutt)

When we arrived, we could see several people by the partially cracked-open hangar doors. They were sitting down to eat at a picnic table. As we approached to ask if we could enter, strains of The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” echoed from within the hangar, which seemed more than appropriate for a sky-diving crew! We were greeted warmly, of course, and given open access to look around. Adjusting to the darkness once stepping inside the hangar took a moment, coming in as we had from a searingly bright summer’s day. The only light came from the narrow slit between the main doors, and from whatever gaps in the building’s cladding that the jury-rigged patchwork of shingles and chipboard had failed to cover. It was like stepping into a cave. At first all I could see were the worn hulks of several long-retired general aviation aircraft. “Ahhhh… we came for nothing,” I thought with a tinge of disappointment. I had heard rumors several years ago that the Canso had been sold to someone in the USA, so I had half-expected our search would result this way. However, as my eyes settled to the gloom, I finally saw the massive bulk of a flying boat emerging from the shadows at the very back of the hangar. “It’s here!” I couldn’t help myself from exclaiming…

Looming out of the shadows at the back of the ancient RCAF hangar at Gananoque Airport, we finally spotted the Canso… it was a lot darker to the human eye than this image portrays. (photo by Richard Mallory Allnutt)
During our visit, several skydivers were milling around inside, with some of them preparing their parachutes for reuse. Everyone we spoke to was incredibly friendly, and couldn’t have been more accommodating. (photo by Richard Mallory Allnutt)

This flying boat is more properly named a Canadian-Vickers PBV-1A Canso, a Canadian-built version of the more commonly known Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina. She served in the Royal Canadian Air Force as serial RCAF 11093, being ‘brought on charge’ on June 16th, 1944. According to Ruud Leeuw’s excellent propliners website, this Canso’s military history can be summed up as follows…

  • Taken on strength by Canada’s Eastern Air Command: 16 June 1944 .
  • Delivered new to stored reserve. Served with No. 162 (BR) Squadron, probably from 05Dec44, used in Iceland, coded “D”.
  • To No. 10 Repair Depot in Calgary on 13Aug1945, for conversion to freighter.
  • To Experimental and Proving Establishment on 21May47, for prototyping of fuel tank modifications.
  • On 12Sep47 reported as “time since new 471:25, fitment standard”.
  • With No. 413 (P) Squadron at Rockcliffe January 1949.
  • On 06Apr49 airframe time reported as 590:00.
  • To de Havilland Canada on 17May49 for modifications.
  • Issued to North West Air Command on 25Oct49.
  • At Sea Island 1949 to 1951.
  • To Canadian Pacific Airlines (Repair) Limited on 07Sep51 for repairs, “on a fly in basis”.
  • To Aircraft Industries Limited in January 1954 for reconditioning, and on 25 November 1955 for modifications, including installation of an APX6 ignition analyzer an automatic electric bilge pumps.
  • Assigned to No. 408 (P) Squadron, RCAF Station Rockcliffe on 23Aug55.
  • To serviceable reserve at Lincoln Park on 10Jul57.
  • Available for disposal there from 10Aug60.
  • Last date: 10 April 1961 – Struck off, to Crown Assets Disposal Corporation for sale.
  • Sold to D.T. Dorosh of Edmonton, Alberta. To civil register as CF-NJL.

David Dorosh registered the Canso as CF-NJL in Edmonton, Alberta in 1962. According to the people I spoke with at the hangar, he had intended to fly it as a water bomber fighting forest fires but, for whatever reason, his partners backed out of the deal, so the aircraft never underwent a conversion for this function. Apparently, Dorosh loved his Canso, so much so that he couldn’t bring himself to part with it, and it has been holed up in Gananoque for the past half century or so. While the aircraft likely hasn’t flown since its arrival, Dorosh still cares for it, taking it outside annually for a wash and wax. It is clear, despite her surroundings, that the aircraft is still in good condition, and while it would need a full overhaul to fly again, it has been well-protected from the elements. Other than the paintwork, she is essentially identical to the way she must have looked at the end of her military service too, although whether the unorthodox cargo doors which purportedly replaced the original side blisters during her 1945 conversion are strictly authentic is unknown at present.

Given her condition, desirability and the advanced age of her owner, it seems a strong possibility that the Canso will move on to pastures new before too long, which will likely include a restoration and return to flying condition in military configuration and markings. While I would love to see this aircraft operational again, a part of me feels that would almost be sacrilege, like the looting of an ancient tomb. There is something strangely romantic about still being able to wander across an all-but-forgotten historic aircraft tucked away in an ancient old barn of a hangar amidst a sea of corn fields; a diamond in the rough just waiting to be discovered…. Whom amongst our regular readers could deny having had such a dream? For the time being, she remains…

The author wishes to thank the skydivers who made my brother and me feel so welcome at the Ghost’s hangar…. and to David Dorosh for preserving this majestic flying boat.