Canada

Aviation experts defend safety record of type of plane used in Saskatchewan crash

No one among the 25 people on board was killed in the Fond-du-Lac crash

Fond-du-Lac photo

Twenty-two passengers and three crew members were aboard the aircraft when it crashed shortly after takeoff on Wednesday from the Fond-du-Lac, Sask., airport. (Raymond Sanger)

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For some, the ATR aircraft may immediately be linked to the high-profile and deadly 1994 crash of American Eagle Flight 4184 near Roselawn, Ind., which killed all 68 people on board.

And while investigators try to determine what caused the crash of an ATR 42 airplane in northern Saskatchewan Wednesday night, some aviation experts say the plane doesn't have a systemic history of safety issues.

"We've had great success with it. It does a good job," said Aaron Speer, vice-president of flight operations for the northern Canadian airline First Air.  "It's a quite capable aircraft.... It doesn't have any particular nasty habits, it's not an unusually difficult aircraft to fly."

The West Wind Aviation turboprop crashed shortly after takeoff around 6:15 p.m. CST near the remote community of Fond-du-Lac in the boreal forest area of northern Saskatchewan. No one among the 25 people on board was killed in the crash. However, at least five people were seriously injured and needed to be airlifted to hospital.

Speer said he has more than 5,000 flying hours in this type of aircraft, and his airline has more than a dozen of these planes in the fleet. They've been operating the aircraft for around 16 years and he estimated there are about four dozen of them operating in Canada. 

"It's a proven and tested and heavily operated aircraft," he said.

ATR, a joint venture between Airbus and Italian company Leonardo, is the world's largest maker of regional turboprop planes. It manufactures two sizes of turboprop aircraft, the 70-seat ATR 72 and the 50-seat ATR 42. The twin-engine ATR 42 most typically seats 42, along with two crew, and is designed for short-haul flights.

"In North America, it's less popular in part because Bombardier is in our backyard, and the high-profile [1994] accident didn't do them any good PR-wise," Speer said.

Fond-du-Lac

Fond-du-Lac is a remote fly-in community in northern Saskatchewan. (CBC)

West Wind Aviation operates a fleet of five ATR 42s, ranging in age from 23 to 27 years old, said Harro Ranter, CEO of the Aviation Safety Network.

The plane involved in Wednesday's accident was nearly 27 years old and first purchased by the now-defunct Mexican-based Noroeste airline in 1991. It has been subsequently owned by airlines in Kenya and South Africa before it was sold to West Wind in 2012,  according to Airfleets.net.

These types of aircraft are used almost everywhere in the world, Ranter said. 

Years ago, when it first entered the market,  the plane did have issues with the accumulation of ice on the fuselage and wings, he said.

"A few aircraft crashed in the early days because of the loss of lift of the wings caused by the accumulation of icing," he said.

Icing was considered a contributing factor in the 1994 crash. That accident also involved the ATR 72, which is bigger than the ATR 42.

"The reality is if you look at the accident, there was a bunch of changes that came out following that accident both to pilot procedure and aircraft systems," Speer said.

"The airplane today is not that same airplane they had," said Speer.

Survivor of Saskatchewan plane crash tells CBC his story 1:00

However, there have been some deadly crashes in the last two years.

Last December, an ATR 42 crashed in Pakistan after the crew reported engine problems. All 47 people on board were killed.

Another ATR 42 crashed in August 2015 in Indonesia, killing all 49 passengers and five crew members on board. But this accident may have had nothing to do with the aircraft. It crashed in mountainous terrain at about 2,600 metres above sea level during a period of reduced visibility due to rain and fog, according to the website Airsafe.com. Both crashes are still under investigation.

Still, Ranter said its safety record overall is "pretty fine."

Some of the ATRs are combi aircraft, meaning cargo is usually loaded in the front part of the cabin, with the seats removed, and passengers are in the back.

But Ranter said he was "not aware of any safety issues or previous accidents related to combi configurations on ATR aircraft."

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