Montreal Crash Kills 11

It was to have been a routine flight from Montreal to Peterborough, Ont., for a group of General Electric Canada engineers. Instead, it ended in tragedy just 27 minutes after the chartered commuter plane took off from Montreal's Dorval Airport on June 18.

Montreal Crash Kills 11

It was to have been a routine flight from Montreal to Peterborough, Ont., for a group of General Electric Canada engineers. Instead, it ended in tragedy just 27 minutes after the chartered commuter plane took off from Montreal's Dorval Airport on June 18. By the time the twin turboprop Fairchild Metroliner II came to a fiery halt after an emergency landing at nearby Mirabel Airport's runway 24, there appeared little rescue workers could do. Although firefighters doused the flames and tried to revive passengers, all 11 people on board - nine passengers and two crew - died. "They tried to save people," says Pierre Marineau, head of the airport firefighters' union, "but it was too late." It was the worst airplane crash in Canada since 1989, when 24 were killed after a regional jet crashed in Dryden, Ont.

Nine minutes after takeoff, Jean Provencher, a veteran pilot for the plane's owner, Rouyn-Noranda-based Propair, radioed Dorval air traffic controllers to report trouble with the hydraulic system. Provencher said the problem was under control. Ten minutes later, he alerted controllers that the plane's left engine had burst into flames, forcing the pilots to shut it down and attempt an emergency landing at Mirabel, 50 km northwest of Montreal. The crippled aircraft struggled towards the airport with its left engine, wing and fuselage ablaze. But it hit the runway upside down, which investigators believe was the result of losing a wing shortly before landing.

The Canadian flag flew at half-mast last week at the General Electric plant in Lachine, Que., where nine of the victims worked (they had been heading to the company's Peterborough plant). The loss was also felt at Propair; at a news conference, company president Jean Pronovost choked back tears as he paid homage to Provencher. "He had a concern for safety that, in my opinion, was exceptional," he said. Industry observers, meanwhile, noted that Propair is considered a reputable charter operator. "They are respected not only by myself but by their peers for being the best of the best," said Brian Jenner, president of the Quebec Air Transport Association, which represents 75 air carriers. And San Antonio, Tex.-based Fairchild Aerospace Corp., which markets the aircraft, maintains that the Metroliner planes have a good safety record. Pronovost called the cause of the crash a mystery, saying: "It must have been the result of a mechanical failure."

Although Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigators are now focusing on the plane's hydraulic system, they are expected to take a year to complete their findings. By week's end, they had retrieved the cockpit voice-recorder, which contains the conversations between the pilot and the control towers as well as ambient sounds in the plane. What is clear is that the crew of Flight 420 faced a horrific ordeal. According to Jean Lapointe, an aviation consultant and Air Canada pilot with 20 years experience, it was "a very critical nightmare situation." A nightmare not only for the victims but for their grieving families, friends and colleagues.

Maclean's July 1, 1998