The Canadian Forces pilot who ejected from his fighter jet moments before it crashed near Cold Lake in northern Alberta overnight says he couldn't believe that a scenario he learned to handle during training was actually happening.
"I just remember thinking of my family," Capt. Darren Blakie said Thursday.
Blakie, 28, was at the controls when his CF-18 went down in a field 13 kilometres northwest of Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake about 11:45 p.m. Wednesday night.
Blakie ejected from the twin-engine plane and was recovered close to the crash site about two hours later by a military helicopter crew.
During his descent, Blakie said, he went through a series of drills to prepare for hitting the land, including removing his oxygen mask and getting his body into proper position.
"When I came down, the parachute hung up into a tree … but fortunately I wasn't suspended off the ground very far, so I was able to disconnect from the parachute and get down safely."
Flares alert rescuers
Blakie said he was surprised how good he felt once he was on the ground. He got his flares ready and then started gathering brush to make a fire.
"I expected to be out there at least for the night," he said.
But as soon as he gathered enough material for the fire, he heard the sound of helicopters. He gathered up his flares and started igniting them to let the rescuers know where he was.
"I followed the sound, and eventually came to a clearing where I noticed they had landed, and I was able to rendezvous with the search and rescue technicians," Blakie said.
Sgt. Lee Bibby was one of the technicians who met him.
"I've been doing search and rescue for about eight years now and it's the first time actually that someone was able to say 'thank you' and walk away from a significant event," Bibby said.
Blakie — a member of the 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cold Lake — was taken to hospital, where he was met by his wife. He was released following an examination.
Blakie finished his CF-18 training in June.
The jet was returning to CFB Cold Lake from a mission and was trying to land when something went wrong, said Capt. Keith Hoey of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre at CFB Trenton in eastern Ontario.
Hoey said the pilot was found safe following a 90-minute search after he set off a flare to draw the attention of the helicopter team.
"The weather and the fact that it was dark just made it difficult to find him," Hoey said.
The rescue crew and the RCMP worked together to pinpoint the scene, said Capt. Nicole Meszaros, a spokeswoman at CFB Cold Lake.
"That effort to get everybody involved in finding the downed aircraft and finding the downed pilot was obviously critical in making sure Capt. Blakie survived after the crash."
Meszaros said it was –13 C at the time of the crash, with the wind chill making it feel like a bone-chilling –22 C.
But Blakie would have been prepared, she said.
"One thing about flying in northern Alberta, our pilots are well-equipped and well-trained to deal with the elements, so when they go flying, they certainly wear the right military equipment to ensure their safety in the event of a crash," she said.
"We have an extensive program run by our flight safety staff on the base," she said. "Cold weather is something that members of the Canadian Forces operate in."
The jet was destroyed on impact. A flight safety team from National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa was to examine the wreckage and determine what caused the crash.
This is the second crash of a CF-18 jet in 2010. In late July, a pilot survived a crash during an air show in Lethbridge, Alta.