Early on a crisp 1964 summer morning in the Canadian tundra, two MU graduate students boarded a canvas covered, single-engine plane. One student was intent on finding a thesis idea, the other excited about igniting his geological career.
They never reached their destination. Although there were no memorial services, their unknown fate wasn’t forgotten.
“You never stop wondering or speculating,” said Jack Everett, the exploration manager of the Minnesotan investors who sent the young men to the tundra.
The 1938 Fairchild 82d that was believed to be carrying MU geology students Doug Torp, 24, and Albert Kunes, 23, and Canadian pilot Chuck McAvoy, was found last week. The front of the plane was damaged by a fire, said Inspector Paul Richards of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Human bones were found near the remains, along with some unopened sardine cans.
“This crash was always considered one of the greatest mysteries of small plane aviation,” Richards said.
The discovery prompted those involved to rehash the disappearance. After almost 40 years, for some the details came back clear, and in a flood, no doubt the result of years of speculation.
In 1963, Torp had accompanied former MU Geology Professor Alden Carpenter to the unmapped tundra of the Northwest Territories. While Carpenter evaluated gold claims already staked by Inuits, Torp was prospecting for “anything that looked promising,” Carpenter said.
Torp found nickel, not quite gold, but it would do. Everett asked Torp to return in the summer of 1964 to map the nickel deposits in detail. With his master’s thesis in mind, he agreed. Just finishing his first year of graduate school, his friend Kunes joined him on the adventure.
On June 9, a large plane brought supplies to the main camp. Torp and Kunes loaded the Fairchild — “a good workhorse, even though it was older,” Everett said — and hopped in. Then the two took off into the still light 2 a.m. sky with McAvoy behind the controls.
McAvoy’s wife expected him home in Yellowknife, Canada, later that morning, but she didn’t start worrying until the next day when she called Everett, hoping it was just a delay of some sort.
“It was obvious he had trouble. We sent out a search that afternoon,” Everett said. For 12 hours the crew searched, and then Everett reluctantly told the company they’d better call the authorities.
“Planes came in from all over,” Everett said. The Canadian government had their best out there looking, and the U.S. Search and Rescue sent a team.
When people heard it was McAvoy’s plane down, efforts seemed to increase.
“He had the reputation of being the best bush pilot in Yellowknife. He was a hero all over Canada. He had rescued so many others, they were coming to rescue him in return,” Everett said.
The search continued until the end of July, until everyone decided the plane had crashed into the ice and was well hidden.
To people in the field or those familiar with the bush planes — Carpenter admitted he was “scared as hell” to ride in the Fairchild — their fate was certain. Torp, Kunes and McAvoy were gone. The only questions were whether they had starved or frozen to death waiting for rescue, or if the crash had been devastating enough to bring about immediate deaths.
Torp and Kunes’ families held out hope for a miraculous rescue.
Bruce Torp, Doug Torp’s brother, said his mother “was always hoping he would walk out of the woods someday.”
Kunes’ mother was the same.
“Every single day his mother would listen for the phone to ring,” said Lucille Kunes, Albert Kunes’ sister-in-law.
Torp had left behind a wife and a 14-month-old daughter.
The crash happened during the summer when most MU students were out of school, so there wasn’t much talk of the missing men until classes resumed that fall.
For almost 20 years, a fund in Torp and Kunes’ names provided economic geology books for the MU department. In the Northwest Territories, three lakes were renamed Torp, Kunes and McAvoy, who also had a Yellowknife street named after him.
But the plane was never found.
Until last week.
The nickel, gold and silver prospecting in the area have changed to diamond, oil and gas exploration. On Aug. 4, a helicopter carrying a U.S. geologist spotted some wreckage in the Nunavut Territory. The Canadian police confirmed the charred remains were the missing Fairchild, and although they still await DNA results to prove the identities, the remains are assumed to be those of Torp, Kunes and McAvoy. Today a memorial service will be held for the three men in Yellowknife.
Inspector Richards isn’t surprised it took 39 years to find the plane.
“It’s something I can understand as a Northerner. We live in a territory that’s enormously vast,” Richards said.
Airplane crashes are a fact of life in this area.
“There are inherent risks in flying in remote wilderness,” Richards said. “For Canadians, this is how much of the north was developed. Hunting, exploration or delivering the mail — the skill of the Northern pilots is our heritage.”
Carpenter said of all the bush pilots he met in 1963, all but one was dead within two years. Everett said many pilots who flew for him were killed in crashes. He went down three times himself, landing on the tundra and once in the Arctic Ocean.
“I survived because I landed on ice and water and tundra, which is soft. They were unlucky because they went down on rocks,” Everett said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.