The Night the Devil Came Down from the Gaspe

Thanks to Keith and Gloria Gathercole. This brilliant article was penned by Keith and Gloria as a tribute to Rejean Lanthier who sadly passed away on Feb 8th, 2021. I loved it so much I asked their permission to repost it. Details of Reg’s passing are published in this Ottawa Citizen article. Reg is my father-in-law and he is deeply missed.

It was a dark and dirty night – really, it was!  The crew had been out all day in a CH-113 Labrador helicopter on a SAR mission somewhere on the Gaspe’ Peninsula and was returning to Canadian Forces Base Summerside, Prince Edward Island on a visual flight plan in the blackness of an early spring evening.   Night had caught up to them as they left the south shore of the Gaspe’ and now flying across the Baie des Chaleurs between Gaspe’ and Miscou Island on the north shore of New Brunswick it was as dark as the inside of a cow.  In the cockpit the subdued white lighting of the instrument panel and the constant howl of the forward transmission and the rotors were a reassuring presence.  The two pilots talked back and forth on the intercom discussing the mission with the Flight Engineer and the two Search and Rescue Technicians who were seated in the bubble windows in the cabin.  As they approached Miscou Island at 500 feet above ground level they encountered light snow showers which increased in intensity as they neared the eastern shoreline of New Brunswick which they had intended to follow down to Miramaichi Bay before crossing the Northumberland Strait back to Prince Edward Island and home.

Within a few minutes the visibility had dropped and so had they as they as they tried to in vain to keep the ground in view, but fortune shines on good people and just as they were running out of options a car pulled out of a driveway onto the highway which parallels the shoreline and turned south.  The glow of the tail lights was like a beacon in the night and provided all the guidance these intrepid aviators needed to continue on their way.  Reg, the pilot-in-command, slowed the big bird down to match the speed of the car, which, given that the visibility on the highway was as bad as that in the air, was fairly slow.  The Lab, 100’ in the air and an eighth of a mile behind the car chugged along in what was essentially a high hover.  The guys called murking along like this SAR IFR, ‘I Follow Roads’ although at 30 knots it was going to take awhile to get all the way down to Miramaichi.  It was not the best set of circumstances, but at least there was a good external reference out there and closely monitoring the radar-altimeter with frequent cross-checks of the flight instruments was proving to be a successful means to an end. 

As Reg’s co-pilot later told me, “It was a bit tense in the helicopter because we couldn’t see anything through the snow except this car’s taillights in front of us.”  As they progressed south along the highway they tried using their landing lights to see if that would provide some illumination of the ground, but the snow reflected the light back into their eyes and they couldn’t see anything.  As a last desperate measure they turned on the Nite-Sun searchlight which provided them 3 million candlelight of white/blue intensity, but again the reflection proved to be too much and instead of seeing the ground they were lucky to be able to see the dimmed down instruments in the cockpit.  It was Nite-Sun OFF and back to the taillights as they slowly meandered along the twisty highway down the shoreline. 

Finally, totally resigned to the benefit their friend in the car was providing, the crew settled back and, almost completely blind, made their way south until without warning the right hand signal light on the car started blinking out its message of ‘so long it’s been good to know you’..

Instantly alert, the pilots watched in some disbelief as their benefactor turned off to the west to some unknown haven lost out there in the snow and darkness of the night.

At that moment, just as the car disappeared, lights on the ground appeared out of the abyss.  The pilots quickly deduced they were looking at a lighted church with an illuminated steeple, and even more importantly right then, a vacant parking lot!  A quick prelanding checklist and the crew readied for a confined area landing as the helicopter came to a high hover over the parking lot.  The intercom came alive with curt commands and muted replies.  “Nite-Sun ON”. “Landing lights ON”, quickly followed on the intercom by the voices of the SAR Techs, heads in the bubble windows, “You are clear left to move down”, “You are clear right to move down”.  Reg slowly lowered the collective and used the cyclic to hold the aircraft steady over the centre of the landing area as the Flight Engineer, leaning out the upper half of the Dutch-door, conned them to the ground.  “Down 40, down 30, down 20, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, main gear touching!”  Toes on the brakes to hold the aircraft in position, Reg lowered the nose wheel to the ground and set the parking brake, and they were safely down..

As the co-pilot read the ‘Shut-Down’ checklist, the ramp and hatch were opened and the SAR Techs moved outside to check the area.  The rotor brake engaged and the huge rotors come grinding to a stop signalling the end of the flight.  As the intense snow shower spilled its contents on the scene, the silence after the deafening roar of the helicopter was a welcome relief.  But it didn’t last for long.  Unexpectedly, the door of the church flew open and banged loudly off a hand rail and a shadowy figure emerged from the door, stumbled down the steps of the church, and with a piercing scream, hobbled towards a snow covered car parked nearby. 

As the wailing figure reached the car and began fumbling for keys it looked over at the parking lot and froze at the unbelievable sight through the gusting snow of a very large yellow helicopter sitting there in the parking lot.  One of the SAR Techs was the first to react and started toward the visibly upset figure that, as he got closer, became identifiable as an elderly woman who definitely was not dressed to be out in a storm.

The SAR Tech moved to her and began to explain that they were forced to land because of the storm and as he did Reg moved over to her to apologize for all the commotion and to explain to her that the weather was so bad they had to find a place to land and the church parking lot had provided an opportune place.

She rather shakily told them that the sudden turmoil had caused her some slight consternation.  She was a member of the congregation and was voluntarily cleaning the church prior to Sunday services.  Alone inside the silent church she had been daydreaming as she mopped the floors, cleaned the pews and straightened up the hymnals when she became dimly aware of a noise that was rapidly growing in intensity.  Being a very religious person, she had immediately crossed herself and looked to the ceiling for some explanation.  Was it an earthquake, could it be a hurricane, was the storm about to crash into the church?  The noise grew and grew and soon the windows began to rattle and the building started to shake, books slid off shelves and doors slammed.  Then an all encompassing flickering white light filled the church casting huge evil shadows that slid this way and that over the inside of the building creating images of beasts and monsters.  Fright rapidly turned to outright panic and she could only believe one thing, “the Devil was coming for her!”  The flight or fright reaction kicked in and she made for the door as quickly as an old lady with a bad back and sore knees could.  The mop pail went in one direction, her cleaning supplies, rags, mop and broom in another as she made her escape from a certain future in Hell.  Hitting the door, she flew past her coat and boots, grabbed the only thing that mattered more than life itself, her purse, and ran slipping and sliding in her stocking feet for her car.  Glancing over her shoulder as she slipped and slid through the snow, she saw a large object in the middle of the parking lot and several strange human-like figures with white domes on their heads emerge.  One detached itself from the others and began to move toward her.  At this point her keys slipped from her hands and disappeared in the snow at her feet.  This was it!  The Devil had her!  Beyond the point of disbelief she resigned herself to her fate and waited for the Devil’s minion to drag her away to the beast in front of her.

Instead, a young man appeared out of the snow, removed a helmet from his head, and asked her if she was okay.  This was not what she expected and it took a few moments before her panic subsided enough for her to realize that this was not the calamity she had imagined it to be. 

After she had been escorted back into the warmth of the church and heard the reason for the helicopter appearing out of the night, she gracefully accepted the apologies of the crew and explained her reaction to the unexpected appearance of the swirling lights and deafening noise of the machine landing almost on top of her.  Finally, madame was placated and somewhat worse for wear returned to her chores never to forget the night ‘the Devil came down from the Gaspe’.