Global News has learned that there were three people aboard the small aircraft that crashed on Gabriola Island Tuesday night, leaving no survivors.
One of those people was former flight instructor Alex Bahlsen — a “pilot’s pilot” with aerobatic and helicopter flying experience, who owned a flying ranch with a private runway in southern Alberta.
Sources tell Global News Bahlsen and two passengers, a couple, were flying from Cabo San Lucas in Mexico and were approaching Nanaimo when he got a radio call out that instruments had failed.
Staff at the airport in California where Bahlsen’s plane had stopped at also described three people boarding a plane matching his aircraft’s description.
Friends said Bahlsen had properties in Alberta, on Vancouver Island and in Mexico.
Bahlsen was believed to be flying his 1982 Piper Smith-Aerostar when the plane crashed around 6:30 p.m. on the northwest tip of the island.
The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) said the twin-engine aircraft was on approach to the Nanaimo Airport when something went wrong.
According to the Nanaimo Flying Club, the crash is “a tragic reminder of the risk associated with flying in adverse conditions.”
“The Nanaimo Flying Club and all of its members and executives remember Alex Bahlsen for the amazing pilot, mentor and friend that he was to so many people,” said the club.
“His love for flying was marked by his unwavering professionalism while in the air and on the ground.”
Bahlsen’s wife, who is also a pilot, is expected to return to Vancouver Island from Mexico on Thursday, friends told Global News.
The other two people aboard the aircraft have not been identified, and officials have yet to even confirm the number of people killed.
The BC Coroners Service said Wednesday it could be “several days” before the number of fatalities and identities of the victims would be known.
Witnesses told Global News they saw the plane circling before doing a nose-dive into a wooded area on a residential property.
“I could see fire in the trees,” said neighbour Bette Lou Hagen.
“I never stopped shaking. I’m still shaking. You don’t expect it on a small island to have something like that happen. And it’s so tragic that we’ve lost three people, but we were lucky it didn’t hit a house.”
Hagen said a trauma expert was going to hold a counselling session Thursday evening for island residents.
Retired TSB investigator Bill Yearwood said officials have their work cut out for them.
“The aircraft struck the ground at a high rate of speed and is badly destroyed, some fire damage, one comment is they can’t even see the registration.”
“So digging out the pieces and getting everything they need will be an arduous task to say the least.”
The TSB spent Wednesday and Thursday at the crash site, and says that “the aircraft was extensively broken up due to high impact forces.”
The agency confirmed the plane was a private flight, which had departed from the Eastern Sierra Regional Airport in Bishop, California and was heading to Nanaimo.
The RCMP, TSB and BC Coroners Service continue to investigate.