Families await TSB report on Resolute plane crash

Aziz Kheraj knew just about everyone on board the First Air flight that crashed on a hillside in Resolute, Nunavut in August of 2011, including two of his granddaugthers. Of his own family, he says 'we'll never full heal,' but the TSB report will answer some questions.
Aziz Kheraj's granddaughter Cheyenne Eckalook, 6, was one of 12 people who died in the crash of First Air flight 6560 at Resolute, Nunavut in 2011. Another granddaughter, Gabrielle Pelky, was one of three passengers who survived. (CBC)

Friends and family of the victims of First Air flight 6560 are eagerly awaiting the Transportation Safety Board's final report that will explain what caused the plane to crash in Resolute, Nunavut two and a half years ago. 

On Aug. 20, 2011, Aziz Kheraj, who owned the South Camp Inn, was waiting at the airport in Resolute. A plane that he had chartered was scheduled to arrive from Yellowknife, bringing supplies, six staff members, a few other passengers and his two young granddaughters, aged six and seven. It was a foggy day and what had happened to that flight was initially unclear.

“There was no plane,” Kheraj recalls. “There was another plane close by that had its engines running. They stepped out and looked towards the hill and then you could see the faint outline of the tail of the airplane up there. That’s when we knew a tragedy had happened.”

Kheraj remembers fire trucks heading to the crash site, and military helicopters circling overhead.

Seven-year-old Gabrielle Pelky (right) survived the crash, but her sister Cheyenne Eckalook (left), did not. (Courtesy of the Eckalook family)

“It took about two and a half hours before we realized that we were fortunate to have some survivors,” he says. “I was there when they radioed they were bringing three survivors, a male, two females, one of them a child.”

The child was Gabrielle Pelky, the elder of his two granddaughters. The other, Cheyenne Eckalook, was one of 12 people who died in the crash.

Among the dead were four crew members, a chef who had worked with Kheraj for 13 years, three new hires, and MartyBergmann, a well-known scientist who was the director of the Polar Continental Shelf program in Resolute.

The Transportation Safety Board will release the report at 11 a.m. ET.

Kheraj says it will be a relief to know what happened to the plane, but admits “we’ll never fully heal from it.”

Military on the ground

The survivors were rescued by military who were in Resolute at the time as part of a training exercise called Operation Nanook. Ironically, they were planning to conduct a mock airplane crash. When the real thing happened, the military used the term "No Duff," meaning, this one is for real.  

Resolute, pop. 250, is one of Nunavut's northernmost communities. (Peter Sheldon/CBC)

Lt.-Cmdr. Albert Wong with navy public affairs was one of many who talked about the value of the military being there on that day.

“I think that the community is a very strong community, it’s a very small community, but the fact that we were here allowed us to give support where support was needed,” he said.

In the following months and years, the conversation turned.

It had been the first time the military were operating a control zone at a civilian airport. They were in charge of air traffic control and questions were being asked about whether they could have played a role in the accident.

Six months later, First Air filed a lawsuit, claiming negligence on the part of Nav Canada and the Department of National Defence.

More lawsuits followed, coming from the families of the passengers who died and the survivors. There are now five lawsuits before the Nunavut Court of Justice. The lawsuits allege everything from pilot negligence for not landing the plane to poor communication between pilots and air traffic controllers. Other allegations include that military staff weren't trained, that they didn't know how to handle civilian aircraft, and that they weren't co-ordinated.

None of the allegations have been proven in court. 

What we know so far

The Transportation Safety Board has already released two safety advisories and a progress report on the investigation, but many questions remain unanswered.

A man lays a wreath at the memorial to victims of the 2011 plane crash near Resolute. (Courtesy Aziz Kheraj)
The progress report revealed that the pilots attempted to abort the landing two seconds before impact. The TSB says the engines were operating normally and the plane was working fine as the pilots were attempting an instrument landing approach. Twenty minutes later, another aircraft attempted the same instrument landing approach and landed safely on the runway.

A TSB safety advisory points to gaps in military communication protocols during Operation Nanook. The TSB wouldn’t say whether this was a factor in the crash, but did say that had First Air flight 6560 not crashed, there was a risk of collision with another incoming plane.

Two and a half years later, family and friends of those who died are hoping all of these questions will be answered.

Kheraj says he doesn’t blame anyone.

“Let’s hope that it never happens to anyone else again. That’s all one can do."