The Royal Canadian Air Force released its final report Monday into last year’s fatal Snowbirds crash in British Columbia, noting that the cause of the crash appears to have been an engine stall following a bird strike.
“Evidence suggests that the damage caused by the bird ingestion was insufficient for it to cause a catastrophic engine failure but rather the engine most likely continued running, albeit in a stalled condition,” the report said.
On May 17, 2020, an aircraft with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds demonstration team crashed in Kamloops, B.C., killing one person and seriously injuring another. The Snowbirds had been in the midst of a cross-country tour aimed at boosting morale during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One Canadian Armed Forces member, Capt. Jennifer Casey, a public affairs officer from Halifax, was killed while another, Capt. Richard MacDougall, who was piloting the aircraft, sustained serious but non-life-threatening injuries.
An investigation of the crash was launched shortly after and the results were released Monday.
The report went through a brief timeline of the events leading up to the crash.
Following take-off, an “impact-like” sound was heard by both occupants, the aircraft then experienced a loss of thrust, the report stated.
The pilot then tried to climb straight ahead and carry out a left-hand turn back toward the airport. However, the maneuver resulted in a stall halfway through the turn, and the pilot then gave the order to abandon the aircraft, the report said.
“Both occupants subsequently ejected and the aircraft was destroyed upon impact in a residential area. The passenger was fatally injured and the pilot received serious injuries. Evidence gathered during the investigation revealed that both occupants’ ejection sequences were outside of the ejection envelope,” according to the investigation.
The investigation recommended a “directive” be published, which outlines the aircrew’s priority when an emergency happens during takeoff and could result in an ejection near or over a populated area.
The report also recommended further training on engine-related emergencies be put in place, and that the practice of storing items between the ejection seat and the airframe wall stop immediately.
Ejection questions continue
The report issued on Monday also raised questions about how well the system worked in the crash.
Both Casey and MacDougall ejected but the report noted that Casey’s ejection system did not work.
“Upon further analysis of the video evidence, it became apparent that the passenger’s ejection did not proceed as would normally be expected,” the report said.
“Video presented the investigation with evidence of the passenger’s seat flying backwards briefly (almost 180 degrees) and no distancing of the passenger from the seat, potentially due to seat/person interference.”
“The investigation could not conclusively determine how the seat reversed its direction.”
Three possible explanations were presented: an item placed between the seat and the aircraft wall could have interfered with the ejection; or the force from a shift in aircraft direction could have forced the seat to rotate slightly, meaning it did not eject properly.
The report also noted flailing movement like a jerk of an arm or leg by the passenger could have theoretically had the same effect of disrupting the ejection system.
None of those scenarios could be determined in the investigation, though the report said the third scenario involving movement by the passenger could be the most likely explanation.
The question of the Snowbird ejection seat has dogged the aircraft for more than a decade.
Dating back to 2006, briefing notes prepared for the government raised concerns specifically about the ejection seat following a probe into the crash that killed Capt. Miles Selby in 2004.
“The escape system has been improved over the years, but to achieve greater improvements it is necessary to replace the seat with one that is capable of ejecting under a wider range of conditions,” read briefing material prepared for the federal government in 2006.
The specific ejection system used in the Snowbird fleet — CT114 Tutors — is an early-generation of the system and does not have stabilizers to prevent the kind of sudden shifts and movements identified as plausible in the report.
The report noted the ejection seat is “prone to respond unpredictably,” and that an “unforeseen event” temporarily stopped Casey from being able to separate from the ejection seat.
“The investigation could not conclude with certainty how this occurred,” the report said.
“The investigation concludes that there is nothing preventing the seat from performing in a similar fashion in the future.”
Brent Handy, a former team pilot with the Forces Snowbirds in 2012 and 2013, said there is no question the ejection seats are an early model.
But he said while modern seats do work better in a broader range of circumstances, that doesn’t necessarily mean the old seats are unsafe.
“It’s not to say that the current seat is unsafe. It’s just that it doesn’t provide the same protections that the current state of the art could provide,” he told Global News.
“There is training and there is proficiency that will allow a pilot to cope with most every situation they’re given. Sometimes you’re dealt a hand of cards that it’s just not going to work out for you.”
“Are there safer options out there? Yeah, there probably are,” he continued.
“But is this unsafe, in my opinion? Absolutely not.”
Following the crash last year, Postmedia reported that the military has begun the process of modernizing the Snowbird ejection seats but that the project is only in the early stages.
Global News reached out to the Department of National Defence asking for more details on whether the seats will be replaced given the problems flagged in the report.
A spokesperson for the department said a new harness design was tested in December 2020 and February 2021, and initial upgrades should be rolled out for the 2021 Snowbird show season.
The upgrades will “increase survivability and seek to expand the ejection envelope,” the spokesperson said.
“To support the ejection seat risk management process, upgrades to the escape system will increase survivability and seek to expand the ejection envelope.
Global News asked whether the upgrades will address any of the factors cited in the report that led to the ejection death of Casey.
“In this case we’re talking about survivability writ-large, not pertaining to this specific incident. Survivability of low-level ejections depend on numerous factors, including aircraft attitude, airspeed and vertical rate of decent,” said the spokesperson.
“Improvements will begin to roll-out this year that will help increase survivability overall.”