Manitoba

Charter service identifies pilot in Little Grand Rapids plane crash

The company that owned a float plane that crashed near Little Grand Rapids, Man., identified the pilot as 39-year-old Jonathan Friesen.

Jonathan Friesen was an experienced pilot with more than 9,000 flight hours

Jonathan Friesen has been identified as the pilot of a Blue Water Aviation plane that crashed near Little Grand Rapids, Man., on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. (Blue Water Aviation)

The company that owned a float plane that crashed near Little Grand Rapids, Man., has confirmed the name of the pilot.

Ed and Steve Gaffray, owners of Blue Water Aviation, released a statement Tuesday afternoon identifying the 39-year-old pilot as Jonathan Friesen.

Friesen was an experienced pilot who logged over 9,000 flight hours and worked for the air charter service for 17 years — 15 of which were spent flying de Havilland Otter airplanes, the owners said. 

"Blue Water is a family run company, this tragedy has deeply touched us all," they said, adding that their thoughts are with the families of the victims.

Although Friesen is the first identified crash victim, his body has yet to be found.

Jonathan Friesen's employer said he had 9,000 hours of experience as a pilot, the majority of it at the controls of de Havilland Otters. (Blue Water Aviation)

RCMP announced yesterday they found a body belonging to a 49-year-old man from Family Lake, but said police and the community of Little Grand Rapids are still searching by boat for Friesen's body and that of the 42-year-old passenger.

The community has about 10 boats out in the water while the RCMP dive team continues its search.

Community honours victims

To honour the victims and their families, about 40 people holding candles gathered Monday night at Little Grand Rapids Lodge, near where the bush plane was supposed to land on Saturday morning.

"To pray for the families, hoping that we find those two, get them home, so the family can have closure," said Collin Meekis, community health representative with Little Grand Rapids, who helped organize the vigil and search.

"Their loved one is still in the water. How hard it must be.… They don't know if they'll find them. They must be hurting right now," he said softly, his voice cracking.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada said the aircraft involved was a de Havilland DHC-3 Otter — a single-engine bush plane manufactured by Ontario-based de Havilland Aircraft of Canada that can seat 10 to 11 passengers.

Little Grand Rapids community members gather Monday night to pray for the three plane crash victims and their families. (Submitted by Jobeth Leveque )

According to Blue Water's statement, the plane took off from Bissett, Man. — a community more than 160 km northeast of Winnipeg — at 8 a.m. Saturday and was supposed to land in Little Grand Rapids.

When the company heard about the crash, it sent a helicopter to help RCMP in its search, "but unfortunately there were no survivors."

The flight came at the end of the flying season for the charter service, and no further flights are currently scheduled for this fall, Blue Water Aviation said.

Photo of John Friesen, a 39-year-old pilot, flying a bush plane. Friesen died in a plane crash near Little Grand Rapids, Man. last weekend. (Owen Murray © 2019/ommphoto.ca)

The TSB announced Monday that it is deploying an investigator to Little Grand Rapids to look into how the crash happened.

Blue Water says it is helping the ongoing investigation as best it can, but cannot comment any further.

Though he did not see the plane go down, Meekis was among the first at the scene. He drove his boat out on Family Lake to search for survivors as soon as he heard what happened but only found debris. 

Meekis said the community is frustrated because the Mounties didn't begin their water search until the day after the plane crashed.

An RCMP spokesperson said the delay was due to weather.

The plane that crashed near Little Grand Rapids was a de Havilland DHC-3T Otter owned by Blue Water Aviation Services. This photo of a de Havilland DHC-3T is from Blue Water Aviation's website. (http://www.bluewateraviation.ca/aircraft/)

"We had people all over and we're doing it again today, just in case the bodies surface and then wash up on shoreline," Meekis said. 

The air is getting cold and it's snowing, but the water is still open, he said.

Community members released candles onto the water last night.

Some of them stayed lit, Meekis said.

"We're trying. We're helping any way we can, trying to get them home so they can have their closure."

With files from Erin Brohman

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