Plane didn't break up in-flight before crash that killed 2 MRU aviation instructors, TSB says

The plane that two Mount Royal University flight instructors were piloting when it crashed earlier this month was still fully intact when it came down in a remote location northwest of Calgary, the lead federal investigator says.

Feb. 13 crash killed Reyn Johnson, 64, and Jeffrey Bird, 35

Mount Royal University aviation instructors Jeffrey Bird, left, and Reynold Johnson, were killed in a plane crash near Waiparous on Monday. (Facebook/Mount Royal University)

The plane piloted by two Mount Royal University flight instructors that crashed earlier this month was still fully intact when it came down northwest of Calgary, the lead federal investigator says.

Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigators have been conducting tests on the wreckage at an Edmonton lab, doing interviews and listening to audio recordings as they try to piece together what happened.

Reyn Johnson, 64, and Jeffrey Bird, 35, both died when the twin-engine Tecnam they were flying went down about 30 minutes into an instructional flight on Feb. 13.

At an update held in Edmonton Monday morning, senior investigator Fred Burow said all of the major aircraft components were found at the accident site but were destroyed by the crash impact and a post-impact fire.

"So at this point we can rule out any in-flight break up of the aircraft," he said.

The tail section of a twin-engine Tecnam owned by Mount Royal University lies at the crash site northwest of Calgary. On Monday, the lead TSB investigator said all major aircraft components were found at the site but were destroyed by the crash and a post-impact fire. (CBC)

Investigators have determined that the Tecnam P2006T climbed to 8,000 feet above sea level and then headed to the northwest. The last radar contact from the plane was recorded at 7,900 feet, 30 minutes after taking off.

The aircraft hit the ground 32 nautical miles northwest of the Springbank Airport, where the MRU flight program is based, at approximately 5:05 p.m. MT, Burow said. The crash site is about 100 kilometres northwest of Calgary.

Too early to determine cause of crash

"It does appear with the initial radar information that we have and the location of the site that it was what I would consider a more rapid descent to that final site," he said. 

Burow said it's too early in the investigation to say whether human error or mechanical issues caused the crash.

Senior Transportation Safety Board investigator Fred Burow says early indications suggest the plane did not break up before it went down. (CBC)

Both men were highly experienced pilots. The Tecnam P2006T is considered a reliable aircraft and is widely used in Europe, Burow said. 

TSB officials have finished examining and documenting the wreckage scene and have obtained most of the necessary radar data and air traffic control audio, Burow said.

Investigators will be sending some pieces of the wreckage, including the propellers, to a lab in Ottawa for further examination. 

The engines still need to be taken apart to look for any defects that could have led to the crash, and investigators are continuing to look at the plane's maintenance records, weather conditions on the day of the crash and operational procedures, Burow said.

MRU aviation program plans gradual return to air

Instruction is resuming this week for the 66 students in the MRU aviation program, but their return to the air will be gradual, Duane Anderson, the school's Vice-President of Administrative Services said at a press conference in Calgary later Monday morning.

"We are taking a deliberate and cautious approach," he said.

Students will at first fly only in circles around the airport.

As they become more comfortable, they will venture farther afield to the usual practice zone where Bird and Johnson went down, Anderson said.

As the TSB continues to conduct its investigation into the crash, MRU is conducting its own probe, Anderson said.

But the school still has high confidence in the safety of its fleet, he added.

The Tecnam the men were flying was one of three twin-engine aircraft owned by Mount Royal. The school also has five single-engine Cessna 172s in its fleet.

"We believe our program is very safe, our planes are very safe," Anderson said. "We are taking all necessary precautions." 

3 previous fatal crashes associated with MRU

Anderson also made a clarification Monday, explaining that new information has come to light indicating there have been three previous fatal crashes associated with MRU's aviation program, not just one, as the school had previously said.

  • In 1973 Al Milne died in a plane crash at or near the Springbank Airport, according to a file in the institution's archives, he said.

  • In 1974, Calgary pilot, instructor and former Royal Canadian Air Force flight lieutenant Victor Jewitt died in a single-engine Grumman American Yankee aircraft. Jewitt was reported to be the chief instructor for the North American Air Training College, which was the service provider for the flight training component of Mount Royal's aviation program at the time. 
  • And in 1989, a crewman from another flight operator was killed in a mid-air collision with a plane piloted by a Mount Royal instructor and an aviation student, according to information provided by the TSB. Media reports from the day identified the pilot as Rodger Millie, 38, of Calgary.