The moose-spotting flight near Sandy Point Lodge, 90 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife, was only meant to take around 30 minutes.

Four hours after pilot Ken Quackenbush and passenger Shariff Adam were meant to arrive back at the lodge, however, Shariff's father, Dr. Hassan Adam, still hadn't heard from them.  

Hassan says he called for help, and a search began in the late afternoon of Sept. 29, stretching into the evening as the temperature dipped below freezing.

Searchers were unaware that out on Gordon Lake, Quackenbush and Shariff had managed to survive the plane going down. The engine failed and the plane flipped over during an attempted landing on the water, according to the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada, which continues to investigate.

"The pilot and passenger were able to stay with the overturned aircraft until it was blown ashore and came to an island where they awaited their rescue," said Mike Adam, a senior technical investigator with the TSB. 

Gordon Lake near Yellowknife

When the plane's engine failed, the pilot tried to land on Gordon Lake, northeast of Yellowknife, but the plane flipped over. (CBC)

As far as Hassan knew, every parent's nightmare scenario was unfolding before his eyes, as early search efforts returned empty-handed.

"I was resigned to hearing the worst," says Hassan. "It was the longest night for me in my entire life."

'We found the guys waving on an island'

John Buckland, a helicopter pilot with Acasta HeliFlight, was part of the search party. He flew the perimeter of the lake that evening, but didn't see any sign of the aircraft. He and a crew of spotters took to the air again the next morning.

"GPS had tracks from the previous night," says Buckland.

"North of the lodge and the centre of the lake we hadn't covered very well. So, that's where we headed first, to check out the islands in the centre of the lake."

At about 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Buckland spotted a turquoise-blue jacket on an island on the north part of the lake.

"It stood out from all the other colours. With the fall … and the trees changing colours there are a lot of colours, but not blue," recalls Buckland.

John Buckland

John Buckland, a helicopter pilot with Acasta HeliFlight, was part of the search party that found the pilot and passenger alive and well. (Submitted by John Buckland)

"We found the guys waving on an island. And that's where the plane was seen after the fact because it was upside down and only a pontoon was sticking out. It was pretty hard to see."

Buckland says the pilot and passenger received only minor injuries in the crash.

Within half an hour, he had Shariff and Quackenbush, both very wet and cold, back at the lodge.

'The happiest moment of my life'

Buckland says he has flown for about 35 years, and has been part of many search and rescues — most without positive results.

"Being upside down in an airplane and in the water is one of those things that kills a lot of people," says Buckland.

"They get disoriented. You have a seatbelt tangled up around you and a life-jacket pulling you the other way … It's a very difficult thing to get out of."

For Hassan, all the fear from the previous night turned into joy upon receiving a text message saying that his son was safe.

"It was an incredible, incredible feeling. There was despair and hopelessness until then," he says.

"When I saw the text saying: 'We found him. He's OK,' it was the happiest moment of my life. So from being the worst period of my life to suddenly being the best period in my life. It was incredible.

"I just want to thank everyone involved."