British Columbia

Investigators expect to know within weeks how military aircraft crashed — but why will take a lot longer

Teams of investigators looking for answers in two deadly Canadian military crashes will likely have a preliminary understanding of what went wrong within weeks of beginning their work, according to the colonel overseeing the cases.

Probes into Snowbirds, Cyclone helicopter crashes will not determine fault

A member of the Armed Forces walks past the tail section of a Snowbirds jet that crashed in Kamloops, B.C., on May 18. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Teams of investigators looking for answers in two deadly Canadian military crashes will likely have a preliminary understanding of what went wrong within weeks of beginning their work, according to the colonel overseeing the cases.

But finding an explanation for why things went wrong will be a far more complex task.

"We can generally arrive at what happened, or what went wrong, after about a month," said Col. John Alexander, the Armed Forces' director of flight safety. 

"The more difficult challenge becomes understanding why."

Two flight safety investigations run by the Royal Canadian Air Force are looking into two crashes in as many months.

An eight-member team arrived from Ottawa in Kamloops, B.C. on Monday, where a Snowbirds jet crashed into a residential neighbourhood shortly after takeoff. Capt. Jenn Casey, a public affairs officer for the aerobatics team, was killed. The pilot is expected to recover from his injuries.

It happened less than three weeks after a Cyclone helicopter went down in the Ionian Sea on April 29, killing all six people on board. The remains of two Armed Forces members on board have been recovered, while four others are missing and presumed dead.

The investigations will not determine fault or culpability for either crash. They are done solely to prevent future crashes from a flight safety perspective, according to the government.

Alexander could not comment specifically on either investigation but explained how such investigations are done in an interview with CBC News on Wednesday.

The red-and-white remains of the CT-114 Tutor were scattered across residential front lawns after the crash. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Evidence, data, human factors play a role

He said investigators begin their work in the field, collecting as much perishable evidence as quickly as possible — artifacts like oil and fuel samples, which would be ruined or lost if left uncollected too long.

That work is easier in Kamloops, where the red-and-white remains of the CT-114 Tutor lie scattered across residential front lawns.

It is far more complex off the coast of Greece, where the fuselage of the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter rests under 3,000 metres of seawater. Canadian investigators are working with the U.S. navy to recover the wreckage within the week.

Alexander said investigators' most "arduous" work usually begins after the evidence-gathering. The officers will sift through "mountains" of flight data, witness accounts, mechanical reports and other information pertaining to the crash.

Combining evidence with data, he said, should give investigators a general idea of what happened within 30 days.

In the case of a fatal crash, the preliminary findings are passed to the families of the deceased before a brief summary is made public.

"[It's] what we call a 'From the Investigator,'" Alexander said. "It's typically a one-pager that will provide the facts of the scenario as we understand it."

A crewman guides a CH-148 Cyclone helicopter into position aboard HMCS Fredericton on Jan. 22. (Cpl. Simon Arcand/Canadian Armed Forces/Combat Camera)

In the months that follow, investigators will analyze the human factors. Teams will look at how personnel involved reacted to the situation, and whether those reactions contributed to the crash.

"That gets into some very complex understandings of the human factors, the decision-making processes, how people understood the environment around them," said Alexander.

The final report, which could take up to a year, recommends preventative measures to the higher chain of command within the military and directly to the Ministry of Defence.

The final recommendations, which will come from Alexander, will be posted publicly online.

"It's ultimately the responsibility of the ministers to accept those recommendations for implementation or not," he said.

The investigators are themselves experienced operations, air crew, engineers and medical officers. Alexander said teams feel a kinship with those involved in the cases on which they work.

Capt. Jenn Casey, a public affairs officer, died in the Kamloops crash. The pilot is expected to recover from his injuries. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

"Obviously, in the military, we would like to think of ourselves as one large family," said Alexander, who has 30 years' military experience and has flown the same kind of Tutor jet that went down in Kamloops. 

"As with any large family, one of the things we want to do is do justice to the memory of our friend. That is done by ensuring that we get to the bottom of an investigation."

Alexander said the flight safety team works as an independent body and can share resources with other organizations such as the Transportation Safety Board and the National Research Council over the course of an investigation.

With files from The Canadian Press

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