August 20, 2020. Not all wartime deaths happen overseas, or in other parts of Canada. Occasionally one happens right in your neighbourhood. That was the case on June 11, 1942 when North Tryon was the scene of a fatal plane crash. Aboard were flight student Ralph Gordon MCCUTCHEON and his instructor, Flight Sgt H. L. SPINNEY, from the No. 9 Service Flying Training School RCAF in Summerside. This flight training school was part of No. 3 Training Command RCAF, carrying out British Commonwealth Air Training Plan training operations.
North Tryon resident Vernon Inman was a witness to the crash and recollected that “… I was walking to the North Tryon School with my sisters and Ralph Edwards and saw the plane coming down. I was 12 years old at the time. I saw a parachute come down by the old mill and saw another parachute on the wings…” The instructor safely landed by the old mill, but the student’s parachute caught on the wings and he lost his life.
Vernon was keen to see what was happening, and noticed that beside the local store “… there were two men with a horse and buggy. I jumped on and we went to the crash site. The road wasn’t paved and the Trans Canada Highway wasn’t built yet. There was a road, but it was only a dirt road, not even gravel…”
“What was the weather like that day?” Pieter asked.
Vernon replied that “… it was a nice sunny morning…” and explained that the cause of the crash was never publicly reported. It was big news on the Island, particularly in the small community of North Tryon and surrounding area.
“….Everyone went to the crash site as they knew the plane had come down. The wing of the plane hit a pumphouse and there was a small fire, but no explosion. The plane was broken in many places. The instructor’s parachute went across the pond, but the student didn’t make it. His body was taken from the wreckage and a blanket covered him. He was lying near where a birch tree is growing now. I’ll never forget that his legs weren’t covered and I could see them….” 78 years later, that image has still left an indelible impression on him.
While the crash was widely reported, not much was known about the student who died. Ralph Gordon McCutcheon was only 21 years old, born February 6, 1920 in Buffalo, New York, and the son of Sydney Joseph McCutcheon and Mabel Martha Billica, who lived in Toronto. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in Toronto, Ontario in September 1941, interrupting his education at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.
Although he had no flying experience, he’d expressed a desire to become a bomber pilot or an observer. He was initially posted to various bases for training in Ontario and New Brunswick, receiving high marks for training courses, and recommendations to train him as a pilot. On April 10, 1942 he arrived at No. 9 Service Flying Training School RCAF in Summerside towards that goal.
At the time of the crash he had been training in a Harvard MK2 plane. The official report of the crash deemed it an accident while doing “…aerobatics...”, and stated it occurred at 9:15 am. Eyewitness accounts in the report mirrored Vernon Inman’s recollection. It noted that “... eyewitnesses state that parachute seemed to be caught on plane which dragged the airman down to his death…” A handwritten entry added that “…aircraft flicked to the right at the top of the loop then parachute caught on plane…” McCutcheon died instantly of “…multiple fractures and a cracked skull...”
Vernon explained that the plane crashed on the border line between the Dawson property and what is now a blueberry farm. “… Myron Dawson’s sister Martha did guard duty at the crash site as people were trying to take pieces of the plane as souvenirs. She was in the military and had been sent there from Summerside…”
Vernon didn’t leave the site without a memento of his own… a piece of the wheel, which still retains the original yellow colour.
“…I may be the only witness still alive, except for my sister Aletha, who lives in Michigan. She’s two years older than me…” Vernon reflected.
In researching this story, Pieter learned that McCutcheon’s body was transported by train to Toronto. His classmates from the air school in Summerside accompanied his coffin to the train station. McCutcheon is buried in Prospect Cemetery in Toronto, Ontario.
Thank you to Vernon Inman for his eyewitness recollection of this tragic accident. Other eyewitness accounts from adults at the time of the crash can be found in ‘Remember Yesterday; a history of North Tryon, PEI 1769-1992, Volume I’. (See https://islandlives.ca/islandora/object/ilives%3A166275v1#page/4/mode/2up) If anyone has more information or photos about this event, please contact Pieter at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on the blog.
© Daria Valkenburg