US Navy 'Willy Victor' (C121) Crash

by Frank Tibbo

It was on July 30, 1963. Jim Dempsey was performing his usual duties for the Department of Transport. Gander Control Tower had reported a problem with the ILS (Instrument Landing System) on runway 04. The Localizer transmitter (the portion of the ILS that sends out azimuth information, i.e., whether the aircraft is to the right or left of 'on course.') was showing in the red (unserviceable). The ILS is an intricate system of powerful radio transmitters which transmits signals which are in turn received by an aircraft's instruments. The ILS guides aircraft to a safe landing when the weather conditions are less than desirable. Needless to say, the calibration and maintenance of the ILS are critical to safe aircraft landings.

The 04 ILS Localizer building was located approximately 200 feet from the end of runway 22 and lined up directly with the center of the runway. (The localizer equipment today is positioned to the side of the approach path – not in the middle as it was in 1963.)

It was a beautiful day. The hot air was cooled by a wind from the southwest. Runway 22 was in use and the wind was right down the middle of the runway.

The United States Navy had a prominent presence in Argentia. Their aircraft would have to land at Gander quite often when the weather was "socked in" at the naval base. It was, therefore, quite common for the aircraft to have their crews make practice approaches in Gander when the weather was good.

The Americans used a converted super-constellation (L1049) for surveillance duty in the North Atlantic. It was referred to as a Willy Victor 2 (WV2). The big aircraft was packed with sophisticated radar and electronics equipment that was top-secret.

The WV2 (no. 329) requested practice ILS approaches, and the only ILS at that time was on runway 04. The Gander Control Tower cleared the aircraft to do ILS approaches on Runway 04 between other aircraft doing landings on Runway 22 (the opposite end of the runway). This was a challenging procedure for the control tower. However, it was just as challenging for the aircraft crew, considering they decided to do some touch-and-goes in conjunction with the ILS approaches. Landing downwind (with the wind) is anything but normal. However, the crew obviously knew what they were doing, and the tower dutifully gave them the surface wind each time they were cleared for the approach and touch-and-go. The pilots, of course, realized that they were doing "touch and go" landings with a tail-wind.

It was Tuesday afternoon at about two thirty on July 30, 1963. Mr. Dempsey was doing some calibrations and making some fine adjustments to get the ILS back in operational condition. He suddenly heard the big aircraft roar overhead the Localizer building and climb away. He had the adjustments made and was checking some other calibrations when the same aircraft roared overhead again. He thought to himself, that thing is coming awfully bloody close to this building; I'm getting the hell out of here now and going for a coffee.

Dempsey had brought a jug of ice water with him to help him withstand the heat of the big radio transmitters. He left the jug and his meter on the work table, boarded his truck and received clearance from the control tower to cross the runway to the terminal building.


Dempsey had barely made it to the terminal when he heard a loud crash. He looked toward the noise and saw the building that he had left a few minutes earlier fly into a thousand pieces of broken lumber. The U.S. Navy aircraft had failed to get enough lift in order to get back off the runway and crashed directly into the ILS Localizer building. Dempsey who was, needless to say, shaken, proceeded to the site where he examined the debris. Five large panels from the transmitter equipment had been thrown as far as the railway track, three hundred feet away. Standing, undamaged, in the middle of the rubble was the work table containing his fifty dollar meter and fifty-cent jug. (The ice water was still in the jug.) A seven million dollar aircraft and a two hundred thousand-dollar ILS Localizer system were written off.

The U.S. Navy immediately posted armed guards near the aircraft to guard against anyone getting too close to the top-secret equipment that was on board.

When the large aircraft came to rest, it was across the perimeter road near the old railway station. For years motorists had read the following sign that been erected by airport authorities:


Everyone knew the message that the sign meant to convey. No one ever expected to see an aircraft completely blocking the road.

A happy note regarding what could have been a tragedy is of the seven crew members, only one was injured – a broken leg. It's also incredible that there was no one injured on what was one of the busiest roads in Gander. The unfortunate part about it was that Gander went for months before the ILS Localizer could be replaced.


submitted by F. Tibbo

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