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Searching for answers

Transportation Safety Board investigating mid-air collision that claimed four lives



One big question remains after a Cessna 150 and a powered glider collided in the sky over Nairn Falls on Saturday, June 29, killing four. Vinu Paul telephoned Pique Newsmagazine from India to ask how two aircraft can possibly collide in mid-air.

Paul's nephew, Mohnnish Gagan Paul, was in the glider owned by the Pemberton Soaring Centre and piloted by Rudy Rozsypalek. A man, woman and a dog were on board the Cessna travelling out of 100 Mile House.

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has launched an investigation headed up by regional manager Bill Yearwood. He said on Tuesday that two TSB investigators were at the scene on Saturday collecting information.

"We have to look at everything and it's early days yet," said Yearwood.

He said the glider wreckage is stored away and will be examined.

"The (Cessna) 150 wreckage, we're still working on getting that organized," Yearwood said. "Investigators will pour over those wreckage debris parts to determine the basic facts."

From those findings Yearwood said the investigators would determine what prevented the pilots from recognizing and avoiding each other.

Yearwood noted that the Cessna was destined for Nanaimo. The Green River valley is a logical path to follow between 100 Mile House and Nanaimo. The airspace above Nairn Falls Provincial Park where the tragic accident happened is limited for low-elevation flight due to the mountainous and steep terrain in the area.

"In mountainous terrain the valleys play a part because they are like roads," Yearwood said when asked if the geography in the Nairn Falls area played a role in the collision. The investigation manager didn't rule it out.

"We do have, fortunately for us, a good eye witness. Quite often people don't look up until after something draws their attention and we only see the after effect of a collision. There was one person that was looking up and saw the aircraft before the collision. That's very helpful," said Yearwood.

As well, one aircraft was equipped with a GPS unit. According to Yearwood, the witness information, combined with the GPS data, will together paint a good picture of what happened leading up to the crash.

Yearwood said once the facts of the crash are compiled a report will be released. He added that TSB reports do not assess fault or blame and the findings can't be used in any legal proceedings.

People like Vickie Nickel, who were camping at Nairn Falls on the weekend, started noticing debris falling from the sky at about 12:20 p.m. Nickel said she heard a loud bang. She came out of her trailer to see part of a plane sail by in the air above her. A camper in the site across the road warned Nickel to take cover.

"He started hollering for me to get inside," said Nickel. "What he could see from his vantage point was that there was burning debris and a whole bunch of stuff raining down, coming towards us, that I couldn't see."

According to Nickel, she could hear material pelting the top of her trailer while she took cover. An airplane door slammed down onto the ground three metres from her trailer where she had been standing a moment earlier. A large piece of aircraft landed in a treed area a few more metres away. Nickel said she didn't see much and most of the drama for her was from the noise and commotion outside her trailer.

Debris littered the provincial park. Part of a glider wing landed in a tree at the entrance to the camping area; across the road part of a Cessna wing landed on ground and small pieces of the aircraft could be seen throughout the area.

The emergency response to the disaster included members of the RCMP, BC Ambulance sent ground vehicles and an air ambulance, Pemberton Search and Rescue attended with the Pemberton Fire Department and 19 Wing Comox sent over a Cormorant helicopter.

Sgt. Rob Knapton of the Whistler/Pemberton RCMP said both planes caught on fire and the Pemberton firefighters dealt with the flames. According to Knapton a large portion of the Cessna landed on the opposite side of the river from the campground.

West Vancouver-Sea to Sky MLA and Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy visited the crash site soon after it happened on Saturday to learn more and he described the incident as a terrible tragedy for the community.

"Given the circumstances, recognizing the tragedy that it is, in some respects we are very lucky as well because debris was strewn all over a populated area and the tragedy could have been worse, as hard as that is to believe," said a shaken Sturdy.

The two people travelling in the Cessna have been identified as Terry Gale, 43, and Rita Gale, 51, of 100 Mile House.

Vinu Paul confirmed from India that his 21-year-old nephew was the passenger in the glider.

Rozsypalek, a Czech national, was an outspoken advocate for the Pemberton Airport with three decades of experience as a pilot. See page 14 for more.