Harry Albert Downer signature

On this day in 1917 Harry Albert Downer, a law student, died at Camp Rathbun when the aircraft in which he was a passenger crashed. He was born in Vancouver on December 17th, 1897, the son of Frederick Downer and Lilian (née Orchard). He had originally joined the Canadian Field Artillery on February 24th, 1917 with the regimental number 339577. He was five feet six and a half inches tall, with a medium complexion, hazel eyes and dark brown hair. On June 13th, 1917 he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as a cadet with the number 70420. He was attached to 86 Canadian Training Squadron at Camp Rathbun as a Cadet Flight Instructor.

The accident in which Downer died was reported in Belleville’s Intelligencer newspaper on Monday September 17th, 1917:

Intelligencer report of 1917 Sep 17 on Harry Albert Downer's death

Intelligencer report on the accident in which Cadet Downer died, courtesy of Belleville Public Library

Fatal Accident at Camp Rathbun

At Camp Rathbun, on Friday afternoon, another air tragedy took place resulting in the death of a flyer and serious injuries to another. Flight Sergt. Drummond with Flight Cadet Alexander were in a plane at a considerable height when from some cause it fell to the ground. Sergt. Drummond was killed and Cadet Alexander sustained injuries of such a nature that his life is despaired of. The aeroplane was wrecked. The accident was witnessed by a number of residents of Deseronto and some from this city were in the vicinity at the time.

Gordon Porter Alexander

The newspaper got Downer’s name wrong. The other man in the aircraft was 22-year-old Lieutenant G. P. [Gordon Porter] Alexander, who suffered cuts and bruises and was “badly shaken up”. Lieutenant Alexander was a Toronto man who had originally served in the 48th Highlanders. He received his Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate (#2869) on May 3rd, 1916 in England – this photograph of him is taken from the records of the Royal Aero Club (courtesy of the Royal Air Force Museum).

The casualty card for the accident is reproduced below:

Harry Albert Downer RFC casualty card

Royal Flying Corps casualty card for Harry Albert Downer, courtesy of the Royal Air Force Museum

…Date of Casualty: 14.9.17
Where occurred: Canada Camp Rathbun Deseronto
Type of Machine: Curtiss JN4
Nature and Cause of Accident: Stall on a turn. Nose dive into the ground from 100 ft.
Result of Accident: Killed
Name of other Occupant of Machine: Lieut GP. Alexander Injured…

The Court of Inquiry into the accident was held on the same day. Captain Aird of 85 C.T.S. gave the following description of the accident:

Detail from Attorney General's 1917 file RG4-32/1900 from the Archives of Ontario

Detail from Attorney General’s 1917 file RG4-32/1900 from the Archives of Ontario

1st. Witness.

Capt. J. Aird, C.C. 85 C.T.S. having been called, states:-

Driving along the road I saw a machine steeply bank to the left at about 150 feet; he then straightened out and went along about 100 yards or so, making a vertical bank to the left in which he seemed to lose his flying speed and went into a spinning nose dive. When I arrived on the scene they were endeavouring to take Lieut. Alexander out, having first discovered Can. 70420 Sergeant Downer was dead. I inspected the machine and found all controls in perfect condition. The work of taking the bodies out was carried on as fast as possible, but could have been greatly accelerated if axes and proper wire cutters had been available.

[signed] John Aird


Harry Downer was buried in Mountain View Cemetery, Vancouver.