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Fire after Richmond plane crash killed pilots: safety report

It was the fire after the crash and not the impact that most likely killed the two pilots of ill-fated Northern Thunderbird flight 204.

It was the fire after the crash and not the impact that most likely killed the two pilots of ill-fated Northern Thunderbird flight 204.

Crash investigators have released their preliminary findings into the tragedy caused when the small aircraft faltered dramatically just half a mile shy of the runway at YVR on Oct. 27 last year.

Pilot Luc Fortin, 44, and first officer Matt Robic, 26, died after their flight with seven passengers on board suffered a malfunction and slammed onto Russ Baker Way just after 4 p.m.

The interim Transportation Safety Bard (TSB) report on the crash states that, although the impact injuries sustained by passengers and crew were survivable, the post-impact fire compromised that survivability.

Both pilots suffered burns as a result as a result of the (fire) and later died as a consequence, wrote chief TSB investigator Bill Yearwood.

Fortin died shortly after the crash. Robic died after three weeks in hospital. Their passengers suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries.

Their plane had taken off from YVR bound for Kelowna, where the passengers planned to attend a business conference, but turned around about 15 minutes into the afternoon flight somewhere over Golden Ears Provincial Park after the pilots reported a problem.

The report stated that the crash was classified as a "loss of control accident," but added that it was working to determine what role critical control speed played and what effect aircraft design had on post-impact fire survivability.

The board noted it had made a number of mechanical and design retrofit recommendations to improve post-impact fire survival rates in a 2006 report, recommendations that have been "largely ignored" by industry regulators.

The report stated the pilots noted an oil leak from the left engine and headed back to YVR without declaring an emergency, as the engine did not lose power. But then, about 300 metres above ground and less than half a kilometre from the runway, "the aircraft suddenly banked left and pitched nose-down."

It said the pilot did his best to right the plane. "The approach to the runway at YVR was normal until the last moments before the anticipated touch down. The aircraft slowed below its target approach speed and seconds later, the aircraft banked left (about 80 degrees), and pitched nose-down (about 50 degrees). The captain was able to level the wings and pull the nose up slightly before impact with a paved road."

In the process, an oncoming car swerved to get out of the way and was clipped by the plane's left wing. As it hit the ground, the plane's landing gear collapsed and, as it skidded on its belly, it shed parts and fuel and burst into flame near the right wing.

The TSB reported the first fire crews were on scene within three minutes. By that time, all but one of the passengers had escaped through the main door; crews rescued the seventh and then tried to get the two pilots out of the cockpit amid the flames. After putting out the fire, they succeeded in getting the two men out.

"While all the persons on-board sustained serious bone fractures from the impact deceleration forces, those injuries were survivable," the TSB found. "The post-impact fire compromised that survivability. Both pilots suffered burns as a result of the post-impact fire and later died as a consequence."

The plane, a Beechcraft King Air 100, was powered by an engine model - a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-28 - that had recently been the subject of advisories about faulty replacement parts.

The TSB reported it had completed its fieldwork and was now in the second phase of its investigation, analyzing its data, before writing its final report.

"The team has now begun the work of analyzing the considerable amount of data in order to determine what happened, why it happened, and what can be learned to help ensure it does not happen again," the TSB stated.

The investigation is being overseen by Yearwood, a former pilot with 18 years' experience and 13 years as an aircraft accident investigator, with assistance from Northern Thunderbird Air, NAV Canada, the RCMP, the B.C. Coroners Service, engineering firms, the Vancouver Airport Authority and fire-and- rescue experts.

With a file from the Province.

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