Snowbird investigation focusing on possible bird strike before fatal crash

Canadian air force crash investigators are looking at a bird strike as the probable cause of the crash of a Snowbird demonstration jet in Kamloops, British Columbia last month.

The accident killed Capt. Jenn Casey, the public affairs officer for the aerobatics team.

In a preliminary report issued Monday, investigators said video footage from the crash showed a bird was very close to the right-side air intake of the aircraft's single engine during takeoff. It's possible the bird struck the air intake, the report suggested.

Such strikes are not uncommon. As a matter of routine, flight planners are expected to take careful precautions against bird strikes, especially during migratory season.

Video of the crash taken by an eyewitness shows the jet was climbing just before what appears to be an engine flameout. After that point, the aircraft turned and went into a steep nose dive before hitting the ground in a residential neighbourhood.

Both Casey and the pilot, Capt. Richard MacDougall, ejected. MacDougall was injured but is expected to make a full recovery.

The aircraft was destroyed on impact.

Royal Canadian Air Force

"The investigation is focusing on environmental factors (birdstrike) as well as the performance of the escape system," said the report.

The report's focus on the ejection system is significant.

The roughly 50-year-old planes were equipped originally with Weber CL-41 ejection seats which have since been modified.

Snowbirds safety system was supposed to be upgraded

The safety system was due to be replaced in 2015 with a more modern version during the life-extension program for the Snowbirds fleet. That hasn't happened. 

The Department of National Defence (DND) was asked Monday whether any further modifications had been made to the aircraft's existing seat, or if the seat had been replaced.

A spokeswoman said an evaluation of a replacement was conducted in 2016.

"It was determined that the most effective way to improve the system would be through a parachute upgrade program, which will identify and assess candidate canopy designs, perform testing for airworthiness clearance, and eventually implement a new parachute system in the CT-114," said Jessica Lamirande in an email. 

"We are still very early in the project."

'Anomalies' with the ejector seat

Questions were asked about the ejection system following the crash of another Snowbird jet in October 2019. The pilot in that crash reported "anomalies" with the seat during the incident. It's still not clear what happened during that tour in Georgia, but the pilot managed to survive the loss of the jet.

Almost 11 years ago, the entire Snowbird fleet was grounded because of problems with the ejection seat system.

Michael Byers, a defence expert at the University of British Columbia who has written extensively about the CT-114 Tutors, said he wonders if the cause of the crash might have something to do with the age of the equipment.

"The Tutor jets are, as the RCAF repeatedly assures us, exceptionally well maintained," said Byers. "Yet they were designed six decades ago, with the technologies available at that time."

The jets were due to retire in 2010, but that deadline was extended to 2020.

'These risks are significant'

An internal DND study warned that the jets' lifespan should be extended only if absolutely necessary and insisted that the fleet be replaced "immediately."

"With each passing year, the technical, safety and financial risk associated with extended the Tutor into its fifth decade and beyond will escalate," said the August 2003 report, which was obtained and reported on by The Canadian Press. "These risks are significant; however, they are not easily quantified."

The investigation into the crash in Kamloops continues. It could be months before a final verdict on the exact cause of the accident is issued.

"During any Flight Safety investigation, we focus on completing a thorough, accurate and professional investigation. While we might quickly understand what happened in an accident, the most difficult work of an investigation begins as we peel back the layers to understand why and how this happened," said Col. John Alexander, the air force's director of flight safety.

"We are laser-focused to understanding everything we can about the accident so we can recommend effective preventative measures to help reduce the risk of future occurrences."

The Snowbirds have been grounded since the crash.

When the crash happened, the demonstration team was taking part in a cross-Canada tour to lift the spirits of Canadians and salute front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.