Mirabel, QB Commuter Plane Crashes, June 1998



Mirabel, Que. (CP) -- A small commuter plane turned into a fireball when it crashed near Montreal yesterday, killing nine employees of General Electric and the two pilots aboard.
"This is something that all of us in the company are greatly saddened by," said General Electric Canada chairman Bob Gillespie. "It will be something that we will have to remember and live with for a very long time."
Employees were equally devastated at Propair, the charter airline based in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., which owned the plane.
"They were very professional," company president Jean Pronovost said of the pilots. "They were not only employees, they were friends."
Pilot JEAN PROVENCHER and co-pilot WALTER STRICKER, both 35, were experienced flyers, Pronovost said, noting that PROVENCHER was the company's chief pilot and an instructor.
PROVENCHER, who left behind a wife, had 15 years experience and 6,500 hours in the air -- about half of those in the Fairchild Metroliner type he was flying when he died.
Earlier reports identified the plane as a King Air.
STRICKER, also an experienced pilot and instructor, was married with one daughter.
Identities of the passengers, two of them women, will not be released until their family members have been notified, airport authorities said at a news conference at Mirabel Airport. The last body was not removed until yesterday evening.
It was the worst air crash in Canada since 1989, when 24 were killed after a jet crashed after takeoff in Dryden, Ont.
Dr. Serge Turmel, assistant chief coroner, said the bodies had multiple fractures, indicating they died on impact. Some had verying degrees of burns, but were identifiable.
The twin-engine turboprop, last inspected June 9, took off from Dorval airport for Peterborough, Ont. at 7:01 a.m., explained Jean Desjardins chief inspector for the Transportation Safety Board.
Ten minutes later its pilot radioed that there was a leak in the hydraulic system, which is used for the landing gear.
It was not considered threatening, said Desjardins, but the pilot headed back towards Dorval.
Suddenly fire broke out on the left engine and with smoke in the cockpit. He asked to touch down on the nearest runway, at Mirabel, where emergency crews scrambled into position.
In what an Air Canada pilot described as a "heroic effort," with one engine shut down, the pilot managed to land at 7:28 but the aircraft exploded, skidding off the runway and ended upside down in a muddy ditch.
There were no survivors.
"Our director of airport operations observed the plane on final approach," said airport manager Ray Monette. "Apparently they had a problem with fire on one of the engines. That flared up on final approach."
"There was flame engulfing the engine, part of the wing and part of the fuselage. It would seem that the pilot did succeed in landing the plane. An explosion took place, we're not sure why, and the plane eventually drifted off to the side of the airport."
The bodies of the 11 dead, all from the Montreal area, were put in a temporary morgue at the airport until relatives could identify them.
Paul Martin, General Electric's engineering director, said the passengers were all engineers who worked as a team in the design of hydroelectric turbines at GE plants in Lachine, Que., and Peterborough, Ont., and frequently flew between the two sites.
RCMP Const. Gilles Deziel, who toured the crash site shortly after, said the plane was on its roof and about 45 metres from the runway.
"Maybe three quarters of the plane was all burned and all black. It appeared to be missing one wing and probably a motor."
Police said weather did not appear to be a factor. It was cloudy but not raining at the time.
A cockpit voice recorder has been removed to help in the inquest but the aircraft had no "block box" data recorder.
Mirabel airport, about 45 minutes north of Montreal, handles only 100 to 120 cargo and charter flights a week during this time of year, after all scheduled flights were consolidated at Dorval last year. Tramsport Minister David Collenette said Mirabel Airport was the scene of an emergency simulation exercise two weeks ago and that Transport Canada concluded a thorough check of the airport Tuesday. Emergency measures at the airport were deemed adequate following both tests.
"It appears the emergency responses at Mirabel were there and performed their tasks" following the crash, Collenette said in Ottawa.
Monette said it was the first fatal air crash at Mirabel.
Propair was founded in 1946 and logs about 2,000 flights a year. The Metroliner is inspected after every 50 hours of flight and the downed aircraft had been in the air 24 hours since its last checkup.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Premier Lucien Bouchard both expressed their condolences.

Winnipeg Free Press Manitoba 1998-06-19