Montreal

Jean Lapierre's last flight: What happened that day?

Friends and eyewitnesses are shedding light on what went wrong the day former cabinet minister Jean Lapierre and six others died in a plane crash.

Details from witnesses and preliminary investigation offer picture of fatal flight's final moments

Investigators with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada take a closer look at the Mitsubishi MU-2B-60 that crashed Tuesday. (Transportation Safety Board of Canada)

Shortly after 9:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Jean Lapierre and several members of his family boarded an accident-prone twin turboprop at St-Hubert airport, just east of Montreal.

The Mitsubishi MU-2B has such a spotty safety record that pilots who fly the plane must undergo annual special training.

Pascal Gosselin, who both owned and flew the plane that carried former cabinet minister Lapierre and his family, was due to be re-certified this weekend, according to a preliminary investigation conducted by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.     

That investigation, the results of which were released on Friday, along with eyewitness accounts, provides details about what happened that day.

An aerial photo shows the plane wreckage on the Magdalen Islands. (Transportation Safety Board of Canada)

The mood on the flight was likely sombre. Lapierre, along with his wife and three siblings, was headed to the Magdalen Islands to attend his father's funeral. 

Reports of fog on the islands had filtered back to the St-Hubert airport that morning. Several commercial airlines based at the airport opted to cancel flights because of the weather. 

"The wind was blowing at 45 knots during the day, the clouds were low and visibility was reduced," said Michel Turcotte, a pilot for Pascan Aviation, which was among those to cancel flights that Tuesday. 

It's not known why Gosselin opted to go ahead anyway. A friend speculated he may simply have sympathized with Lapierre's situation.

"Pascal wore his heart on his sleeve, and I think he really wanted to help Mr. Lapierre and his family," said Christian Guy.

The wrecked Mitsubishi MU-2B is scattered in a field, roughly two kilometres from the runway at Îles-de-la-Madeleine Airport. (Transportation Safety Board of Canada)

Shortly before 12:30 p.m. AT, either Gosselin or his co-pilot Fabrice Labourel radioed air traffic control in Moncton, N.B. Their plane was cleared for an instrument approach to Runway 07 at Îles-de-la-Madeleine Airport.

It was raining lightly on the archipelago. There was mist. Gosselin wasn't likely able to see more than four kilometres in front of him.

His MU-2B approached the runway from the southwest, but at some point it began to lose altitude, enough to alarm those who live nearby.

"I heard the sound of a plane flying low, low, low," said Diane Vigneault. "I said to myself, 'That plane is so low.' I cried, I didn't know what else to do."

Eyewitnesses say the plane's nose was pointed downward, though the preliminary evidence gathered by the TSB suggests its wings were roughly horizontal to the ground. 

"We know that the plane wasn't in a serious nosedive," said André Turenne, a senior investigator with the TSB. 

"It was relatively horizontal. It was rolling slightly to the left." 

Investigators inspect the wing of the wrecked plane. (Transportation Safety Board of Canada)

Around 12:30 p.m. AT the plane's left wing and engine struck ground some two kilometres from the runway. The plane skidded the length of a football field before coming to rest near a cluster of homes.

Albert Cyr, who lives in one of those homes, came running out to the wreckage. "I called out to see if there was anyone," he said. "But no one answered."

In the days since the crash, Cyr has had trouble sleeping.

"We all knew Jean Lapierre," he said. Lapierre was born and raised on the Magdalen Islands, before heading to Ottawa and launching a political career that saw him become a federal cabinet minister and one of Quebec's best-known political analysts. 

Three ambulance teams were dispatched to the site, along with fire crews and police. They managed to pull Labourel from the aircraft and transport him to a local hospital. 

But he died as he waited to be transferred to a hospital in Quebec City. 

The next steps in the TSB investigation will be to section the plane's wreckage and transport it back to a laboratory in Ottawa. 

Investigators are keen to consult the plane's GPS device, which will help them piece together what happened in the final moments of the flight. 

But Turenne also tempered expectations about what to expect from the device. Unlike a black box, it is not designed to withstand high-velocity impacts.

He said it could be a year before the TSB completes its final report into the crash. 

A funeral was held Friday for Lapierre, his father and his siblings at Saint-François-Xavier Church on the southern tip of the Magdalen Islands, not far from the home where Lapierre grew up. 

A TSB investigator works on site near the wreckage. A senior TSB official sought to temper expectations for what the plane's GPS tracker might reveal. (Transportation Safety Board of Canada)

with files from Ryan Hicks and Radio-Canada

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