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Still Searching

Hope for answers remain in 60-year-old military crash in the Callaghan Valley

Claire Stubbs is convinced her husband, who has been missing for almost 60 years, will be found one day in Whistler's backcountry.

She's accepted, finally, that he's dead. Her only hope now, at 89 years old, is that her ashes can be laid with him, that they can be together again after all these years.

Flight Officer Gerald Stubbs was 32 years old when his military fighter jet disappeared from radar in 1956. He was never seen again, nor too his fellow pilot Flight Officer James Miller, who was 24 at the time.

That fateful day — March 22, 1956 — would change the Stubbs and Miller families forever. Their tragedies, so intricately tied to each other, shaped and coloured the rest of their lives, rippling in unforeseeable ways for decades to come, scarring the next generation.

Their story unfolded on Whistler's doorstep. The pilots' final resting place is likely somewhere in the deep forest of the beautiful Callaghan Valley, where pieces of their plane have been found over the years.

The search continues to this day, carried out by local search and rescue volunteers, by the RCMP, by private citizens, all determined to bring closure to this case, and peace to the families. Out again in October, they are scouring the Callaghan, looking for clues. It feels like a fruitless task at times.

But, if they need another reason to keep looking after 60 years, it's simply this: "(My mother) is still convinced that they'll be found and has asked me to make sure that her ashes are laid with him," says Sally Stubbs, who was just 18 months old when her father disappeared.

"She still lives in the past. She still mourns for him. She still loves him. It's a remarkable story, really."

The Annual Search – October 4, 2015

The search day dawns full of promise.

The crisp early morning air is destined to burn off to fall's warmth by late morning, the skies clear, the mood optimistic. These were excellent conditions for searching.

Unlike previous years searching in the cold and sleet, this is a rare treat for the volunteers, and, more importantly, the best chance yet of finding what they were looking for in the forest.

Brad Sills, manager of Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR), outlines the day ahead for the 20 or so SAR members.

He explains they are looking for the ejection seats or a helmet or a boot; something that's durable and something that's angular, that doesn't look like it belongs in the forest. After 60 years however, it will be covered in moss, and could be deeply buried.

So eyes on the ground. And above, he says.

"This is an old-growth forest with a lot of cedar and hemlock and they tend to have spiked tops on them," adds Sills. "You can imagine a parachute coming down into this forest — it's going to get hung up, almost inevitably."

Sills knows this area like the back of his hand. He cut these trails deep in the Callaghan Valley decades ago when he was building his backcountry Nordic adventure lodge. It's one of the reasons why Stubbs' and Miller's story has stuck with him; their fate, and the subsequent enduring mystery, unfolded right in his backyard.

"It's typical Callaghan or coastal rainforest," explains Sills, standing by an easel outlining the linear paths for the search groups. "There's lots of little creek beds or micro features. I don't think there's too many cliff bands but I wouldn't rule them out in here."

Not to mention, he adds, this is prime grizzly bear territory.

Did anyone bring bear spray, he asks, to a sheepish response.

Sills remembers scouting out cross-country routes in the '70s and coming across a rudimentary camp — a log set up as a rough seat, tin cans of sardines, and a lot of cord. He dismissed it as an abandoned miner's camp. There has long been mining activity in the Callaghan. But it's that cord he remembers now.

He just wishes he could find that camp again. Memory, however, is a fickle friend.

Sills' recollection is it's near a watercourse and he asks the teams today to pay close attention, in particular near the water.

And the pilots were likely trained to head towards water in the event of a crash.

It's an easy beginning, walking along one of Sills' first trails, cut through here decades ago, for about 15 minutes until the search routes begin.

This is a Type 2 grid search, with three members per team.

The middle team member holds the course with a constant compass bearing while the members on either side weave through the forest, back and forth, over a 20-metre wide search swath.

It's the kind of searching you do when the subject is immobile or unresponsive.

It's the kind of search WSAR did years ago, for example, when a scared child went missing on West Side Road. That child was found hiding hours later.

It's the kind of searching that sounds easier than it actually is.

This is "hiking" deep in the forest, climbing over large logs, through swampy ground, pushing past dense bush. On top of that, you're on alert, senses primed, always looking up and down and around.

There's a thick quietness in the dense forest, lots of time to think: What happened to Stubbs and Miller? Did they both survive a forceful ejection from a fighter jet? If they survived, what were they facing when they landed in the far reaches of a Callaghan covered in thick snow at least five metres deep — cold, hurt, scared, lost — kilometres from civilization? Did they ever have a chance? Did they even make it to the ground alive? Sills believes at least one of the pilots ejected and survived. The memory of that camp, and that parachute cord, lingers.

The Flight – March, 22 1956

Flight 21454 left RCAF Station Comox mid-morning on March 22, 1956 on an instrument flying practice flight. This was more than a decade after World War II, in which the West Coast played a vital role in the Pacific theatre of war.

Station Comox was re-established after the war to provide air defence for Canada's West Coast, as part of NORAD — the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

It was a bustling airforce base at the time.

The T-33 Silver Star, or "T-Bird," one of the fastest jets in the air force cruised at just under the speed of sound.

That day Flight Officer Gerald S. Stubbs and Flight Officer James E. Miller, of the 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron, took off from Comox on what was to be a routine training flight, set to last around one hour.

The plane was last sited by radar at 10:17 a.m., entering bad weather.

Stubbs and Miller were never seen again.

Stubbs had a little girl at home, Sally, and his wife Claire was six months pregnant. They lived on the base at Comox.

Stubbs loved being a pilot, loved to fly.

"It was something he loved and he was good at it," says Sally, of the dad she knows only through her mother's stories.

"He loved being a family man too. He was one of those guys who, more than anything, wanted to be a husband and a dad."

Miller was married to Mary Ford with two babies at home — Michelle, 20 months, and Marilyn, almost four months.

"I have no memory of him at all," says Michelle Miller from her home in Victoria.

She isn't sure why he wanted to be a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force — Did he love flying? Was he an adventurer at heart? Was it just a good opportunity for a young Canadian boy in the '50s? There are just a handful of letters that give her clues to her father,

"We didn't really talk about it much in my immediate family," she says.

Mary Miller remarried within a year of the accident and relocated to Terrace; Claire Stubbs never remarried. She would have a baby boy less than two months after losing her husband. She named him Gerald.

"We would have lived a very different life" had her father not been lost forever, Sally says.

"The ripple effects were astonishing. It never stopped.

"I think that's something when you hear of planes crashing and 150 people just disappearing, all I can think of is 'oh my God, those poor people left behind.' Some of them will never stop looking or grieving."

The Clues ­– 1956 to 2015

The initial search for the missing airmen focused on the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Based on witness testimony, the area of greatest focus was 32 kilometres northeast of Comox. Unbeknownst to anyone, this was a long way from the crash.

And so, it was assumed that the pilots went down in the ocean, never to be seen again.

And they weren't, for almost 20 years.

The first break in the case came from Howard Rode, an avid mountaineer, who was hiking in the Callaghan Valley with a group in the early '70s. Rode has hiked almost every mountain in this area.

One of the party found something on a ridge near their campsite.

"I had to go up and look," says Rode, now 96 years old.

It was the metal canopy from a plane, with Plexiglas scattered on the barren alpine ridge.

"I got a serial number off the canopy," says Rode.

He reported the find and ultimately led military searchers back to that ridge where they retrieved the canopy.

The T-33 had never crashed in the ocean. Far from it. Now everyone knew something had gone wrong in the air above the Callaghan Valley. But what happened?

It took years for the next clue. And when it came, it was a big one, the wreck itself — about four kilometres due south of the canopy.

It was 1997 and a B.C. Forest Service firefighter, who also happened to be a member of Whistler Search and Rescue, spotted the wreckage from his plane.

It was investigated again. Ultimately, it was determined that the plane crashed due to fuel starvation. One more piece of the puzzle.

More than 10 years would pass before the next clue was found — a helmet. It was in a direct line between the canopy and the wreckage.

It's a familiar story to search master Fred Carey who has scoured these mountains, forests, waterways and the Pacific Ocean, from high in the sky, in painstaking searches for answers to so many aircraft mysteries.

"That whole area during that time was the training area out of Comox for the T33s and there's a lot of them lost," says Carey, who is the B.C. director for the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association, a volunteer organization that conducts air searches.

These stories become open cold case files with the RCMP, but for family and friends and even the people involved in the initial search, they remain frustratingly unresolved, unfinished.

While the evidence may no longer change, particularly for these decades-old cases, circumstances on the ground may shift and fresh eyes bring new perspective. Hope remains for a break in the case one day.

British Columbia is a notoriously difficult place to search, adds Carey.

"It's the toughest place in North America to do a search. It really is. We've got the mountainous range. We've got the tree canopy. We've got the rivers and the glaciers and the ocean. It's a tough place to search."

The search continues

Rode has followed the mystery keenly over the years after the initial find. It's the kind of story that just sticks with you. He's passed that on to his son, Brian, who grew up knowing about these missing pilots and his family's small and indirect connection to them.

Brian wanted to take his father back to the ridge this year to where Howard set the wheels in motion.

One week before the official training search day, Brian turned his plane almost directly into the sun, heading due south of Cirque Lake.

There it was glittering in the sun, almost blinding him with its brightness, a small ray of sharp light standing out against the dark, barren alpine ridge.

"We found it on the first pass and it was so obvious because there was light reflecting off it," recalls Brian, of his late September mission this year with his son, Lar.

"If you weren't flying into the sun at that time, it would have been hard to spot. That was pure luck. That wasn't planned."

The reflection was coming from pieces of thick Plexiglas, remnants of Stubbs' and Miller's T-33 fighter jet canopy, which lies there in the Callaghan to this day.

Three generations of Rodes returned to the ridge that same day as the annual Whistler Search and Rescue training exercise was unfolding below them. They collected some more Plexiglas to bring back to the RCMP, which will document it as more evidence.

Brian, who is a land surveyor, had a small metal monument made. They put the rod in the ground as a record, surrounded by a rock cairn.

"A good gesture," explains Brian.

The pilots' names and the date of the accident are etched into the metal.

For Michelle Miller and Sally Stubbs, it's heart-warming to hear of the ongoing search.

"I think it's a fabulous thing... that they have so much passion for looking for lost people," says Miller.

Whistler, adds Stubbs, including the police and the volunteer searchers, has been amazing.

"It's been astonishing," she says. "I'm really, really grateful... to everyone involved in the search and rescue... It's really made us feel, I don't know, like people do still care."

Stubbs, a Vancouver playwright, is working on a play based on her family's story. It's called Our Ghosts.

She can't help but wonder...Could more have been done in those initial days after the search? If so, could these pilots have been saved?

Over the years it's been private searchers who have pieced this puzzle together — hikers found the canopy, a local pilot found the wreckage, another private citizen found the helmet.

"It's been hard not to feel frustrated through the years, that's all," she says.

"It's been our life."

Howard, who has played a key role in this story, has faith that the story is not yet over. That there will be more answers in the coming years.

"I think the group up there that is searching now, they'll probably in all likelihood, find the seats," he says.

He thinks they will find them in the line between the canopy and the wreckage.

Fred Carey isn't involved in the Stubbs-Miller case but there are others, like "SAR Bradley" that he reviews periodically hoping for a break. This is another T-33 that went down northwest of Whistler in 1957.

"You're always going to be reviewing them," says Carey of the open cold cases. "You never want to give up."

Stubbs hopes one day she can fulfil her mother's last wishes to be laid to rest with her husband. It's a weight she will carry with her until she can see it through.

"I can't imagine there will be anything left... But I want to try," she says.

"I would sure like to do it for her."

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