Gusty winds, pilot error led to 2016 seaplane crash in Northern B.C.

The pilot's attempt to land in gusty crosswind conditions led to the hard landing of a float plane that seriously injured one person on British Columbia's north coast in May 2016.

Pilot and six passengers escaped the submerged aircraft and were rescued by local boaters in May 2016

The pilot and six passengers were able escape the aircraft and were rescued by local boaters. (RCMP)

Nurse Erin Wiltse was one of the six passengers on board the float plane that left Prince Rupert on May 24, 2016. 

She along with two other nurses, Heather Pastulovic and Shari McNiven, were headed to the small First Nations community of Kitkatla to work at a remote nursing station when the 20-minute flight operated by Inland Air Ltd. crashed into the ocean upon landing.

"It was a really hard land. It was a big boom, and it was if you can imagine, the two tips of the wings were teeter-tottering. Each wing bouncing of the water, we hit about three times, teeter-tottering side to side," Wiltse recalls. 

'It was frightening. It was dark. We couldn't see. We were trapped inside a sinking float plane.' - Erin  Wiltse , passenger

"That's the moment I was like, oh my God, this isn't right," she said, "I need to get myself out of here, I'm going to die," 

On Monday, the Transportation Safety Board released its report of the crash which victims say downplays the magnitude of the accident.
It found that gusty crosswind conditions and pilot's error led to the hard landing that seriously injured one person. 

One person was seriously injured when the float plane crashed in May 2016 near the small First Nations community of Kitkatla. (RCMP)

The TSB said the right float support collapsed from the side-to-side bouncing and the plane then capsized, with water rapidly flooding into the cabin. 

"It was frightening. It was dark. We couldn't see. We were trapped inside a sinking float plane," recalls Wiltse.

"The windows were bolted on, we couldn't get the doors open," she said. 

They escaped through the back cargo hatch, which two other passenger Clayton Hill and Randy Robinson, both from the Kitkatla community, kicked out. 

They managed to do so despite Robinson losing his glasses and hearing aid and Hill unable to swim and terrified of flying.

The three received a silver medal for bravery from the Life Saving Society of BC/Yukon for their heroic efforts last March. 

Clayton Hill, Erin Wiltse and Randy Robinson, shown holding their awards on March 18, 2017, received silver medals for bravery from the Life Saving Society of BC/Yukon. (The Life Saving Society of BC/Yukon)

All seven occupants — one pilot and six passengers — escaped the aircraft and were rescued by local boaters immediately, said the report. 

But both Wiltse and McNiven say the escape was more dramatic than the TSB report states. 

"There was a good five minutes of struggling inside. People screaming, people fighting for their lives," said Wiltse.

McNiven said the report and some news articles have downplayed that the plane was under water with passengers trapped inside. 

"It was a horrific accident. It  makes it sound like it was rough landing and we had to jump out of a plane into a boat," said McNiven. 

It was the first time McNiven had been on a float plane and will likely be her last, she said. 

She is still recovering from a spinal injury.

Wiltse said all the passengers on board the aircraft suffered some kind of physical injury, not to mention mental health issues.

"There isn't a single one of us without out it. You don't walk away from something like that — thinking you're going to die — without some form of PTSD," said Wiltse. 

'Fault in safety briefing'

The TSB report also stated that none of the passengers were wearing personal flotation devices and nor were they required to by regulation.

The safety board concluded that four of the ten most frequently cited factors in seaplane crashes applied in this case — including wind conditions, aircraft control and landing area selection.

The report also found fault in the safety briefing given to passengers before take-off. 

"The location of available exits was not included in the briefing. The pilot also did not confirm that the occupants understand their role in the event of an emergency," read the TSB report. 

Wiltse said she doesn't recall any safety briefing at all. 

"It wouldn't have prevented the accident, but it could have prepared people better for what happened," she said. 

CBC news contacted Inland Air Ltd. for comment, but has not yet heard back. 

Inland Air Ltd. had voluntarily implemented a safety management system (SMS), but had no formal process for documenting and assessing hazards or risks such as this one, found the report.