Low-level flight frightens Fort Chipewyan

Posted by: Meagan Wohlberg 8 months, 4 weeks ago


The alleged flight path of Flight 304, as recalled by witnesses.


Witnesses who say they saw a plane flying dangerously low over the community of Fort Chipewyan last week have submitted a formal complaint looking for disciplinary action to be taken against the pilot.

The flight in question was a McMurray Aviation "Caravan" freight plane heading from Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray at 11:54 a.m. on Thursday. There were no passengers on board.

Witnesses said the pilot flew too low and maneuvered dangerously close to the Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) Business Centre and the Fort Petroleum Ltd. Partnership offices and fuel tanks.

"The aircraft was nearly in a 90 degree bank with the top of the plane facing the Business Centre (the wings were almost vertical)," states the report. "During the flight, the plane was constantly descending until...the aircraft was at the lowest altitude, just above the tops of the trees."

Witnesses claim the plane was a single engine, single-winged aircraft with yellow and black stripes down the side, consistent with the design of McMurray Aviation.

MCFN communications officer Bradley Saulteaux was one of six witnesses who signed the official report. He said the incident raises immediate concerns about the safety of passengers and communities below.

"I feel that McMurray Aviation does not care about the safety of the passengers or the communities they serve," he told The Journal. "Air travel carries our elders, our sick and our children more often than our healthy. Careless and unsafe flight leaves the passengers with fear that lasts a lifetime, and with air travel being such a huge part of life in these communities, we are only making life worse for those who are afraid to see a doctor because they have to board a plane."

Saulteaux said he immediately contacted both the owner and general manager of McMurray Aviation to report the incident. He claims both denied any occurrence of low-level flight.

"Flat out denying that any of Aviation's planes were in the area makes me feel that the company is based on lies instead of virtues," he said.

Saulteaux sent a report of the incident to McMurray Aviation and is demanding both an apology and the suspension of the pilot. 

"If not, it's going to Transportation Canada," he said.

McMurray Aviation owner and CEO Wade Komarinsky confirmed the company had a departing flight in the area at that time, but said the company is still investigating the allegations internally.

"I've got two conflicting sides of the story, so I'm in the process of determining the validity of the allegations," he told The Journal, adding that there was a low-level survey plane from another airline doing duck surveys in the area that day, as well. 

He said he would compare the pilot's flight trajectory with the one claimed by witnesses on the ground.

"(The witnesses) said a 90 degree turn; the pilot said maybe a 30-45 degree bank. And from the ground, the perspective does look a lot different," Komarinsky said.

If the investigation shows the pilot violated regulations, Komarinsky said disciplinary action could be taken.

"It varies depending on what the incident is," he said. "It could be a time-off penalty to more of a disciplinary or dismissal type of thing with a file being transferred on to Transport Canada for enforcement if he committed a serious violation."

Not the first complaint

The witnesses' official complaint contains reference to several previous allegations against McMurray Aviation regarding safety violations, including reports of pilots flying through dangerous conditions, like low ceiling and forest fire zones, pulling similar "dangerous stunts" close to Fort Chipewyan, as well as an alleged incident where a civilian passenger piloted a plane from the copilot seat with others on board.

Komarinsky said those allegations have already been dealt with.

"A lot of the stuff that has been reported has already been investigated by Transport Canada, and in a lot of the cases, the pilot did take the appropriate action," he said. 

"The civilian flying thing was reported to us through our internal safety management system, and passengers do occupy the front copilot seat, but they do not have control of the aircraft," he said, noting that does not go against regulations. "The pilot never releases control of the aircraft."

The forest fire incident was an issue of traffic avoidance with an aircraft, he added.

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