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Pilot has no memory of spectacular Nanaimo air show crash

The noisy crowd hushed instantly on June 4 when a plane lost altitude and crashed just east of a runway at the Nanaimo Airport.

The crash occurred at approximately 2: 05 p.m. that Saturday and the stunned crowd watched a B.C. Ambulance chopper lift off, carrying amateur pilot Dr. Bill Phipps, 71, to Victoria General Hospital, not knowing if Phipps would live or die.

Phipps, a general practitioner in Campbell River, arrived home from hospital on the weekend. He has no recollection of the spectacular crash of his homemade Steen Skybolt biplane at the Wings and Wheels airshow, sponsored by the Nanaimo Flying Club. The incident brought the first Nanaimo air show in 40 years to an early end. Audience members dispersed as emergency workers loaded Phipps into the helicopter and cleaned up the wreckage. Speaking from his home in Campbell River on Monday, Phipps said he’s doing well but “I still have a way to go.”

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The crash, before approximately 5,000 shocked spectators, fractured one of his vertebrae and he received multiple other injuries both internal and external.

John DeVries, who witnessed the crash, told the Daily News that Phipps had been attempting a quarter barrell roll before he had to correct his path and try to regain control.

“His right wing clipped the ground and he did a cartwheel. There was just dust and no explosion, smoke or fire,” DeVries said following the crash.

“It was pretty traumatic,” Nanaimo RCMP media spokesman Const. Gary O’Brien said at the time.

Fellow air show pilot Sigmund Sort of Qualicum Beach said he was surprised Phipps was involved in the crash.

Sort acknowledged Phipps’ skill in the cockpit, saying he was highly experienced and had built the plane that bore his name in the call sign, C-FIPS.

“He affectionately called his plane Rag Bags,” Sort said. “It’s a kit plane made of white fabric and a wooden frame.”

For much of his time in hospital in Victoria, Phipps’ jaw was wired shut as he had numerous facial fractures due to the crash. Phipps, said he’s been performing at air shows for 17 years in the biplane he built with a friend. “Frankly, I’m still unaware as to what actually happened. I don’t know if it was my mistake or if something was wrong with the airplane,” he said Monday.

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“I can’t even recall flying at the air show. I remember arriving in Nanaimo and looking at a number of the other planes and vehicles there.”

He’s been in contact with officials with the Transportation Safety Board, who visited him while he was in hospital, but has heard nothing from them regarding the cause of the crash.

Phipps is adamant that age was not a contributing factor to the crash.

“I’ve got a private pilot licence and I have to pass a complete medical exam every year. I passed my last one in March. On top of that, if I want to perform in air shows, I have to pass an air show competency exam which I did last April,” he said.

Because of the fracture of his vertebrae, his mobility is limited. He also has to undergo future surgeries on his elbow and perhaps his back.

“Right now, my elbow looks like a TV antenna because of all the metal surrounding it and holding it together,” Phipps said.

He tires easily and can’t climb the stairs in his own home but says he’s lucky to still be alive.

Phipps has resigned himself to remain earthbound once he has recovered, at least as far as air shows are concerned.

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“I don’t think this accident should in any way stop the Nanaimo Flying Club from holding future shows but I have to admit, it’s not the way I wanted to finish my career as an airshow pilot,” he said.

The flying club has said it plans future air shows in Nanaimo, the next scheduled for 2013. 

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