Marmots have posed problems at the Kelowna, B.C., airport where a plane involved in a fatal crash Saturday had been stored, but there's no indication the gnawing rodents had caused any damage to the plane.
The twin-engine Piper Apache crashed into the empty field near Vernon's airport shortly after takeoff around 1:30 p.m. PT. Witnesses said they heard the engine sputter before the plane fell from the sky, clipping trees and bursting into flames.
A Kelowna man, 59, and his passenger, a 55-year-old man from the Port Moody area, died on impact. The sports field was empty and no one else was harmed in the crash.
The B.C. Coroner's Service has not officially released the identities of the victims, but the plane is registered to Shaida Langley of Kelowna, B.C. She was not one of the passengers at the time of the crash, officials have said.
The Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash, but one local pilot said marmots have damaged some aircraft at the airport.
Bret Chalmers, who witnessed the crash during a tandem skydiving jump, said he was falling from about 300 metres when he saw the plane go down.
"We witnessed a plane taking off," he told CBC News on Monday. "It made a hard left turn as soon as it got off the runway and crashed into the park near Marshall Field.
"Immediately there was a lot of fire. It just ignited into flames. It was obvious, fairly quickly, that it was a serious problem," said Chalmers, who landed about 50 metres from the crash site.
Marmots have been damaging planes by chewing on some aircraft components, according to Ray Young, a member of the Kelowna Flying Club.
"We were all expecting something sooner or later because of the amount of damage they've been doing to almost 80 per cent of the airplanes that are parked out here," Young said.
However, another pilot who uses the airport doesn't buy into the theory that marmots had a role in this crash.
Robert Anderson has been keeping his airplanes in the same hangar as the crashed plane for two years, and said the marmots haven't been a problem on planes stored indoors.
"We haven't had any [marmots] in the hangar. They don't get in the hangar. But on the grass strip they can get in, chew brake lines, nibble on tires," Anderson said.
Trevor Erhardt, who says he trained the pilot to fly the Apache, said the victim was very experienced and had significant flight training in twin-engine aircraft. He bought the plane with his wife to make excursions to Florida and the Caribbean, Erhardt said.
People close to the pilot say he modified his aircraft to make it safer, including increasing the size of the tail to improve directional control and stability in the event of an engine failure.