Ejection seat tangled with parachute in Snowbirds crash: Investigators

OTTAWA — A military investigation has found that the ejection seat of one of its iconic Snowbirds planes tangled with the pilot's parachute as he tried to escape from the aircraft before it crashed last year in the U.S. state of Georgia.

The finding is contained in a summary released by the Royal Canadian Air Force on Monday. It follows similar concerns about the Snowbirds' ejection systems after the team's public affairs officer, Capt. Jennifer Casey, was killed in a different crash in British Columbia in May.

Eyewitness accounts have suggested Casey's parachute did not open properly after she and Capt. Richard MacDougall ejected from their Tutor jet on May 17, shortly after takeoff from Kamloops Airport.

The Tutors' ejection system was also the subject of military tests in 2016 that determined the parachutes should be upgraded. Those upgrades have not yet happened. The ejection system was last upgraded in 2003.

The Snowbirds crash in Kamloops was the second for the military aerobatics team in less than a year after an aircraft piloted by Capt. Kevin Domon-Grenier went down in a farmer's field while en route to the Atlanta Air Show on Oct. 13. Domon-Grenier sustained minor injuries.

The summary report released Monday said while investigators were unable to determine exactly what caused the October crash, they did find signs of previous damage that suggested a possible fuel leak.

They went on to recommend an inspection of all Tutor engines to identify similar problems in the rest of the fleet and better tracking of certain maintenance activities involving the oil cooler and fuel ports. The Air Force said Monday it was reviewing the findings.

Investigators also said they found problems with the ejection system after Domon-Grenier "reported anomalies with the ejection sequence and the parachute opening" as he tried to escape from his 57-year-old Tutor jet.

"The mostly likely cause of the parachute malfunction was the result of one or more parachute pack retaining cones having been released prior to the activation of the MK10B Automatic Opening Device," investigators wrote.

"Entanglement of the suspension lines with parts of the ejection seat immediately followed ultimately disrupting the proper opening of the parachute canopy."

Investigators have already said they are looking into the ejection seat as they dig into last month's Snowbirds crash that killed Casey. They have suggested that based on video evidence, the crash occurred after a bird was sucked into the Tutor's engine.

The Snowbirds took preventive measures as soon as concerns were raised with the ejection system, Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Jill Lawrence said in an email Monday. That included inspecting the entire system, including the parachute rip cord pocket, to ensure there were no problems.

Lawrence also confirmed the ejection system was the subject of a series of tests by the Air Force in 2016.

"Based on those results, it was determined that the most effective way to improve the system would be through a parachute upgrade program," she said. "We are still very early in the project."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press