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Family of co-pilot who died seek action

Robics want Transport Canada to work on reducing post-crash fires

Matthew Alexander Robic was a fighter.

The 26-year-old Mission man shattered a vertebrae when the Northern Thunderbird Air plane in which he was the co-pilot crashed on approach to Vancouver International Airport.

His back was the least of his concerns. The ensuing fire would prove lethal.

Robic survived for three torturous weeks through multiple operations before succumbing to severe burns suffered when the twinengined Beechcraft King Air 100 caught fire on impact.

Now, his parents are fighting to ensure their son's death is not in vain and that Transport Canada - after six years - finally pursues measures to reduce the incidents of post-crash aviation fires.

"We're not happy letting it go as just an accident," the co-pilot's mother, Corinna Robic, told The Vancouver Sun during an emotional tour of the wreckage in a hangar at the south airport in Richmond. "I don't want it to be forgotten."

She looked inside the charred and partly melted right cockpit seat where her son sat during the crash at 4: 11 p.m. on Oct. 27, 2011. There was his water bottle, hanging upside down, water still inside.

The federal Transportation Safety Board is storing the wreckage in the hangar as it continues to investigate the crash. The nose, tail, and right wing are separated from the charred fuselage, which has been gutted along its right side.

"Something has to come from this," she continued. "Matthew worked too hard to get to where he was just to have it washed away. He was a fighter. And that's why I'm pushing for some change."

Far from an isolated event, the circumstances of the Northern Thunderbird crash are part of a national issue that has festered for years in the face of federal government inaction.

Calls for Transport Canada to investigate post-crash fires began in 2006. That's when the Edmonton office of the transportation safety board looked at 13,806 small aircraft accidents in Canada from 1976 to 2002 that resulted in 3,311 fatalities and 2,217 serious injuries.

The 521 accidents involving post-crash fires accounted for about four per cent of the total. But, they led to 22 per cent of the fatalities and 10 per cent of the serious injuries. Overall, the fatality rate in post-crash fires was 5.5 times greater, and the rate of severe injury almost triple.

The safety board suggested, in part, that Transport Canada and other aviation regulators look into technology that would deactivate the battery and electrical systems at impact to eliminate a potential ignition source for aircraft weighing less than 5,700 kilograms.

Transport Canada has taken the position that it supports the safety board's objectives to reduce fatalities and serious injuries due to post-impact fires, but that their implementation "would require an immense resource effort."

The department said instead it will continue to address safety issues that "will have a greater safety benefit for the travelling public." The safety board continues to rate Transport Canada's response as unsatisfactory.

In an interim report on the Northern Thunderbird crash released Feb. 9, the safety board said regulators "have largely ignored" the recommendations and the board continues to investigate air crashes in which "some or all on-board survive the crash only to die as a consequence of post-impact fires."

Alex Robic, a cabinet installer, said he spoke with firefighters who went to the crash site and they confirmed that there was arcing in the cockpit, showing that electrical power continued to surge after the crash.

The Robic family considers it reasonable for Transport Canada to at least investigate the potential for some sort of electrical switch that would kill the power and help reduce the chances of fire.

G-force switches that cut the battery power on impact can cost a few hundred dollars; changing the operating system of an aircraft would require a Transport Canada certification that could add many thousands of dollars to the cost. Cutting the battery would also remove power to the fuel pump, further helping to reduce the fire risk.

"If you can't meet all the recommendations ... don't wash the whole thing away," said Corinna Robic. "We're pretty frustrated. It was a survivable accident."

Bill Yearwood, regional manager of the safety board, confirmed that "wires were still live and arcing" after the crash, although the board cannot say conclusively that they started or contributed to the fire. The investigation continues.

The Robic family has written to Transport Minister Denis Lebel to seek action.

The department emailed The Sun on Thursday to say: "Our thoughts continue to go out to those affected by this terrible accident. The department has recently received a letter from the Robic family and is currently preparing a response which will be sent to the family soon."

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