Grief and questions as deadly plane crash investigation continues

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Strong winds and other adverse weather conditions likely contributed to the deadly float plane crash that killed three tourists at Little Doctor Lake near the Nahanni National Park, says the plane’s operator.

“Little Doctor Lake is probably … one of the hardest places to fly on floats because the current is going one way and the wind is going the other. We can get some huge waves here in a matter of ten minutes,” said Simpson Air owner Ted Grant in an interview Friday.

Geoffrey Dean, 33, of Castor, Alta., was one of three tourists killed in the Aug. 16 crash. His widow, Louella, shared an emotional online tribute to her late husband. “My heart is broken. My wonderful, kindhearted, patient, selfless, love of my life husband put me before himself for the last time. Forever in my heart.” Facebook photo

Grant said quick-changing weather offers challenges to pilots navigating the area.

“Often we’ll get winds in two different directions and that’s what makes it really difficult,” he said.

He believes heavy wind gusts likely played a role in the plane’s crash.

Geoffrey Dean, 33, of Castor, Alta., Stewart Edelman, 72, of Saskatoon, Sask. and Jean Edelman, 72 of Saskatoon, Sask., died after the Simpson Air Cessna 206 float plane they were flying in crashed on the evening of Aug. 16.

The plane was coming in for a routine landing at Little Doctor Lake, located between the Nahanni National Reserve Park and Fort Simpson, having returned from a tour of Virginia Falls.

Two women, a passenger from Alberta and the plane’s pilot, came away from the accident uninjured.

In an emotional post added to Facebook, Geoffrey Dean’s widow, Louella Dean, shared a smiling photo of her late husband.

“My heart is broken. My wonderful, kindhearted, patient, selfless, love of my life husband put me before himself for the last time. Forever in my heart,” read the post.

Edmonton-based investigators from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) arrived at the scene of the crash last Tuesday. Investigators collected information and interviewed witnesses. Grant said TSB members left the scene Thursday, bringing parts of the plane with them for analysis.

The identities of the three victims were released last week, but it will likely be months before the official causes of death are released – and longer still before it’s known what exactly caused the deadly crash, the territory’s chief coroner Cathy Menard told News/North.

That’s because the Coroner Office’s investigative partner, the TSB, has a one year window to publish findings following fatal aviation incidents.

“Because we’re investigative partners, we share a lot of the information. So our final reports are not released until all our partners reports are done,” said Menard.

Little Doctor Lake, according to Simpson Air owner Ted Grant, is a common pit stop for planes returning from tours.

“(The passengers) had already been to Virginia Falls and spent a couple hours touring at the falls and they were on their way back to (Fort) Simpson,” Grant told News/North in an interview last week.

Asked how two passengers could have walked away from the fatal crash unharmed, Grant said that’s “just the way it happened,” adding he won’t know exactly what transpired until an investigation has been completed.

In 2013, the TSB reviewed 1,432 seaplane accidents spanning a 15-year period. Of the168 passengers who died in the 103 fatal accidents that occurred on water, 70 per cent – 118 passengers – were found deceased inside the aircraft. In those same 103 deadly crashes, 67 per cent of passengers died from drowning – “trapped in the confines of the cabin,” stated the report. Far fewer died from impact or from exposure to the elements.

“If you’re in the backseat of a 206, you’re not getting out if the plane goes underwater,” a retired British Colombia pilot with experience in flight operations management and crash investigations, who wishes to remain anonymous, told News/North in an interview last week.

The retired airman said the Cessna 206 isn’t an “optimum float plane.”

“I don’t fly float planes anymore because it takes next to nothing to tip a float plane over. Once you’re flipped, you’re underwater very quickly and the people in the back can’t get out,” he said.

The experienced pilot stressed that until the TSB releases its findings, we won’t know exactly what happened.

“It all depends on what type of accident it was,” he said.

If a plane crashed while landing, the veteran pilot said activated landing “flaps” make it harder for passengers to open the doors following a crash.

“The flap on the door side impinges against the door, so the door, you can’t get can out of the airplane when the flaps are down using that door. If you can’t get out of the airplane, you’re going to drown,” he said, adding the flaps will “always be down” when landing.

By addressing the vulnerabilities of the Cessna 206 – and all small aircraft – the former pilot said he’s “highlighting a danger that’s being ignored.”

Cathy Menard said part of the ongoing investigation includes determining where each of the passengers were positioned inside the aircraft.

Simpson Air owner Ted Grant said the community is reeling from the deadly crash.

“Everybody is saddened by this, especially for the families of the victims who were on a flightseeing tour, certainly didn’t want anything like this to happen,” he said.

“The whole community here is pretty saddened by it and of course all of my staff,” said Grant.

The deadly Aug. 16 accident was the second crash in the Dehcho in as many days. The day before, three passengers and a pilot sustained minor injuries after another Cessna 206, owned by South Nahanni Airways, crashed in Nahanni Butte.

Asked whether or not potential tourists should be concerned or alarmed by the pair of crashes, Grant said “these things do happen.”

“You try to prevent them. Sometimes it can be mechanical, sometimes it can be human error. You just try to prevent everything but those things just do happen,” he said.

Grant said he’s still confident in the safety of the Cessna 206.

“It’s a great airplane and I’ve flown it for many years,” said Grant. He added there’s a misconception about plane crashes – people think it’s easy to get out of an aircraft.

“When accidents happen you’ve got a split second or two,” he said.

Aug. 16’s crash marks the second fatal accident for Simpson Air in 37 years. A 1988, crash claimed three lives.

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As the Yellowknifer’s crime reporter, it’s my job to keep readers up to speed on all-things “cops and courts” related. From house fires and homicides to courtroom clashes, it’s my responsibility to be there - day or night, rain or shine. When I’m not at court gathering stories, I’m in the office, making calls to lawyers, emailing RCMP and tracking down sources. After hours, I rely on the public to let me know what’s happening and where. Entering my second winter in Yellowknife since leaving my hometown of Peterborough, Ont., in October 2017, everyday on this beat continues to be challenging, rewarding and fulfilling. Got a story? Call me at (867) 766-8288 or shoot me an email at editorial@nnsl.com.