Snowbird Down

We’re all pretty shook up by the crash of a CT-114 Tutor aircraft of the Snowbirds, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s demonstration team, yesterday morning. The day before we had gathered with neighbors (at an appropriate social distance, of course) outside and watched with delight as they flew several passes over the city in formation. The news the next morning was heartbreaking.

From watching the multiple videos posted on Twitter, it seems likely that the accident aircraft experienced a loss of power shortly after takeoff. As trained, pilot pitches up to trade airspeed for altitude to gain time and space to eject. So far so good. Then the pilot begins a left turn. Now pilots are trained to fly straight ahead if an engine fails on takeoff, because trying to turn around at low speed without power risks a stall, spin, and crash. However, the Kamloops airport is to the west of the city, and the planes were taking off toward the east. So I think it’s likely the pilot was trying to turn away from the more populated areas so that he could eject without the plane crashing on people.

The CT-114 Tutor has a very low stall speed for a jet, but in a nose-high turn, the speed at which it will stall increases. The next thing we see is the left wing stall and the aircraft enter a spin. An aerodynamic stall means that the airflow over the wing is at too low a speed or too high an angle to sustain lift, and the wing drops abruptly. When an aircraft is turning, the wing on the inside of the turn can stall before the other, and thus send the aircraft into a spin. This is what we see in the video: the left wing drops, and the plane spins for one revolution. The pilot then recovers from the spin nicely, gains control of the aircraft, but now he has no more altitude left. The aircraft is too low and in too steep a dive to pull out. So the pilot and passenger eject. Modern ejection seats have the ability to steer the rockets that propel the seat toward the zenith, so there is as much altitude as possible for parachutes to open. From a quick Google I can’t find the exact model of seat that the CT-114 uses, but from the video it doesn’t look like the seats changed direction after ejection; they shoot out horizontally. That, coupled with the downward momentum of the aircraft, meant that there was hardly any time for the occupants’ parachutes to open. You can’t see the chutes in the video, but from pictures of emergency services treating the pilot, Captain Richard MacDougall, on the roof of the house he landed on, it seems his chute opened at least enough to save his life. From eyewitness accounts it seems that the passenger, Captain Jenn Casey, hit a tree and was fatally injured. If there had been enough altitude for the chutes to open fully, she could have steered to a safe landing spot.

The aircraft crashed in the front yard of a house and slid into it, catching it on fire, but the occupants were not injured.

I can imagine the view from the cockpit during that flight — I’ve been flying a plane, pitched up until it stalled, then kicked the rudder to send it into a spin. The world turns round and round, you push forward and step on the opposite rudder, and then you pull out of the dive. The difference is that I was doing it at 4,000 feet, and had plenty of time to recover.

Rest in peace, Captain Casey. You and your team were trying to bring a bit of delight into our lives in a difficult time.