Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thick fog may be to blame for B.C. plane crash

Aircraft burst into flames, killing 7, after slamming into South Thormanby Island

Kelly Sinoski, Gerry Bellett and Janet Steffenhagen, Vancouver Sun

Published: Monday, November 17, 2008

The pilot of a plane that crashed into a hillside and exploded on south Thormanby Island had to get special clearance to fly that morning because of poor weather conditions, a Transportation Safety Board official said Monday.

And an official of Pacific Coastal Airlines said there was no record of a distress call from the pilot before the plane crashed.

TSB spokesman Bill Yearwood said Pacific Coastal's Grumman Goose was required under visual flight rules to get permission to lift off Sunday because the weather - overcast skies and fog - provided less than a 1,000-foot ceiling with 4.8-kilometre visibility.

Matt Sawchenko was killed in the Pacific Coastal airplane crash on Thormanby Island. Teresa (right) is pregnant with his child.

Matt Sawchenko was killed in the Pacific Coastal airplane crash on Thormanby Island. Teresa (right) is pregnant with his child.

That's a common rule when there is poor visibility on the coast, Yearwood said. If the pilot can't see for 1.6 kilometres, the plane is not allowed to lift off in an airport control zone. Between 4.8 km and 1.6 km, the plane must get permission but it's up to the pilot whether to fly after clearance is granted.

"Under visual flight rules, you have to be able to see where you're going to be able to fly," Yearwood said.

Details of the crash, which killed six of seven passengers and the pilot and left a debris field of 300 to 500 metres with only bits of the aircraft remaining, were still being worked out. But the TSB said scarring on trees near the crash site suggest the pilot was in control and flying fast and low before striking the hillside.

The pilot, who was in his 50s, had more than 12,000 hours of flying experience along the coast and in float planes around the world, said Spencer Smith, vice-president of Pacific Coastal.

"I would expect that if he was aware he was dealing with a situation, he would communicate. "t leads me to believe that what he was dealing with, they didn't have a lot of notification. They weren't aware they were in any danger."

Smith said while the weather Sunday wasn't "great by any stretch ... it was certainly within the legal limits to operate."

However, Smith noted that the weather might be good in one area but not 10 km away.

"Certainly if conditions were believed to be limited to operate, we wouldn't have been allowed to take off," he said. "We operate within what we consider minimum set standards."

However, Fred Sverre, a West Vancouver hunter who heard the crash and first notified police, said the fog was so socked in on South Thormanby Island he could only see 100 metres in front of him.

It was so thick, Sverre said, that it muffled the sound of the crash, just east of Spyglass Hill at about 10:30 a.m. on the flight from Vancouver to Powell River. Shortly after the plane crashed it burst into a fireball, with seven people still inside.

The men were headed to a Plutonic Power work camp in Toba Inlet to work on a hydro project. Donald McInnes, CEO of Plutonic Power Corp., said grief counsellors had been sent to the project camp and work had been shut down temporarily.

The lone survivor, identified as Tom Wilson, managed to escape the mangled wreckage and walk more than two hours down a steep and thickly wooded riverbed to the island shore, where he was picked up by volunteer Canadian Coast Guard members.

"There was nothing but fog," Sverre said. "I heard crashing and metal crumpling and I knew it was a plane."

Using the sound of the crash and what appeared to be flares or shots fired shortly after, Sverre tracked the plane's location with his GPS and notified rescue officers.

He searched for four hours for the plane. He said he could smell it burning, but was unable to get to it through the thick brush.

After 1 p.m. when the fog started to lift, rescuers were able to get to the site.

According to Environment Canada, visibility near Mary's Island lighthouse on South Thormanby Island Sunday morning was two miles with low cloud and fog.

Ron and Mary Kernohan, who live in nearby Secret Cove, said they knew there was trouble when they met six ambulances on the highway near Halfmoon Bay. Ron Kernohan said the fog was heavy on the water and nearby islands. Flying in such conditions would be "like going through a car wash of milk," he said.

The weather was so bad in other parts of the province that some smaller airlines cancelled flights on Sunday. Doug MacCrea, president of Central Mountain Air, said some flights to Williams Lake and Quesnel were cancelled because of snow, while flights to Campbell River were also affected by the weather.

Yearwood said it was too soon to determine whether a mechanical problem or pilot error caused the crash. "In this case we know the weather was marginal and we'll take that into account," he added.

Relatives of the victims began arriving in Sechelt where the RCMP chaplin and members of local churches and victim services were on hand Monday to support them.

Relatives of one of the men who died tried to reach the crash site early Monday by boat but were turned away by police.

RCMP Cpl. Peter Thiessen said it would have been impossible for them to hike the several kilometres from the bay to the site.

"And secondly, we really don't feel that it was something they would have wanted to see," Thiessen said.

A plan will be formulated today about how to remove the remains from the site near the top of the hill. Four members of an emergency response team were spending the night on the island to keep the site and the men's remains secure.

Barry Emoff, who was part of the search team, estimated the plane crashed about 60 to 80 feet below the top of a bluff, in dense scrub and bush.

"It was pretty rough going. I had to use a chainsaw to cut through some of the brush, it's pretty dense in spots," Emoff said.

Emoff, who lives in Water Bay in the shadow of Spyglass Hill, said his house was rocked by the explosion. Even though the Grumman Goose has twin engines, he said he didn't remember hearing any engine sound prior to a clipping sound and an explosion. At the time of the crash the area was shrouded in thick fog, said Emoff.

"It was right down to the top of the trees."

Emoff and his wife Karen are the only permanent residents on South Thormanby Island, which is mostly used as a summer retreat by the owners of about 70 cottages and cabins on the island or by boaters from Desolation Sound or Pender Harbour.

Pacific Coastal Airways suspended operations of its float plane services. "Our concern is for the people operating the equipment," Smith said. "[Employees] are taking this very hard, as can be expected."

Thick fog may be to blame for BC plane crash
Vancouver Sun