Snowbird pilot died after seatbelt unfastened: report

The Snowbird pilot in last May's crash in Montana lost control after his seatbelt came unfastened while the plane was going through a roll, an initial safety report on the Quebec native concludes.

Quebec-born captain described as 'very professional pilot'

The crash that killed a Snowbird pilot in Montana last May occurred when his seatbelt came unfastened during an aerial manoeuvre, an initial safety report on the Quebec native concludes.

Capt. Shawn McCaughey, 31, was killed May 18 when his jet crashed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. ((Department of Defence/Canadian Press))

The report, released by the Canadian Defence Department on Monday, says Capt. Shawn McCaughey was steering his plane through a roll in northern Montana when his lap belt opened, causing him to fall out of his seat and lose control of the plane.

Once the buckle became unlatched, the Quebec native fell out of his harness and was not able to reach his controls or eject, director of flight safety Col. Christopher Shelley said.

"He's upside-down, the seatbelt comes unlatched, the harness comes loose, he falls out of his seat," Shelley told CBC News in a phone interview from Ottawa.

Col. Robert Mitchell, commanding officer of the Snowbirds,said a pilot outside of the lapbelt is no longer attached to the ejection seat.

The plane, which was 230 metres above the ground, crashed. McCaughey, 31, died on impact.

Practising for air show

The crash occurred in the afternoon on May 18 as McCaughey, who was originally from Candiac, Que., and other Canadian Forces Snowbirds were practising for an air show at the Malmstrom Air Force Base, near Great Falls, Mont.

Reached at his home in Candiac, Que., McCaughey's father, Ken, told CBC News that the although the news gave them some insight into what happened, it brought no comfort to the family.

"I'm not pleased, but at least we knew at the time that it was not probably our son's fault," he said.

However, it remained unclear whether the seatbelt came undone due to mechanical failure or because McCaughey had failed to fasten it properly himself.

It was also not the first time a Tutor jet pilot's seatbelt came undone during a stunt. In 2002, another seatbelt became unfastened when the plane went upside-down, except the pilot was able to reach the controls in time and steer himself back to safety.

Another seatbelt jammed 2 weeks before crash

There was another problem with a Tutor jet seatbelt that jammed just two weeks before McCaughey's crash.

McCaughey was a member of the 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, based in Moose Jaw, Sask. One day after the crash, the commander, Col. Richard Foster, described McCaughey as a "very professional pilot" with 1,400 hours of flying experience.

McCaughey, who fulfilled a childhood desire to be a pilot, was with the Snowbirds for two years and was supposed to get married just three weeks after the crash.

Monday's report was prepared by the Defence Department's Force Directorate of Flight Safety.

Modifications to seatbelts

The organization will undertake further investigations to examine why McCaughey's seatbelt came undone.

Since the crash, some modifications have been made to the seatbelt and restraint systems in Snowbird planes, and there has been enhanced training for pilots and passengers, the Defence Department says.

The commanding officer now also radios pilots before take-off, reminding them to check their belts.

The Snowbirds perform aerobatics in single-jet Tutors. Six Snowbird pilots have died since 1972.