A January 2021 helicopter crash that killed a northern Alberta pilot, his wife and two daughters was the result of pilot decision-making in assessing weather conditions for the night flight, an investigation has found.
"The investigation found that an inaccurate assessment of the en-route weather led to the pilot's decision to depart when the weather conditions for the intended flight were below the limits required for a night VFR flight," the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) said in a news release Wednesday.
Four members of a family from the small farming community of DeBolt, near Grande Prairie in northwestern Alberta, had spent the afternoon of New Year's Day visiting a family farm near Eaglesham, a hamlet about 55 kilometres to the north.
In its report, the TSB said pilot Wade Balisky, 45, inaccurately concluded that weather conditions for the short flight were acceptable for the night VFR (visual flight rules) flight that evening.
"During the course of the day, the pilot was asked by family members on several occasions if the weather was going to be acceptable for the return flight that evening," the report says. "The pilot replied that he had checked the weather on his phone and the weather was going to be fine for the return flight."
Less than eight minutes after the 7:41 p.m. takeoff, the Robinson R44 Raven II helicopter crashed into a field about 20 kilometres away and burst into flames.
All four occupants — the pilot, his wife Aubrey Balisky, 37, and daughters Jewel, 8, and Fleur, 2 — were killed. Three other older children were not on board the flight.
Investigators believe Balisky encountered deteriorating weather and poor visibility shortly after lifting off. With his visual cues limited by night and cloud, they believe Balisky quickly became spatially disoriented and unable to determine the chopper's speed or altitude in relation to the ground.
'Limited visual cues' at night
The report notes that weather conditions for flying are available from a number of different sources, though it wasn't possible to determine which sources Balisky used before the fatal flight.
On that day, the visibility and ceilings reported by aerodrome routine meteorological reports for Grande Prairie (closest reporting point to DeBolt) and Peace River (closest to Eaglesham) were cited as being acceptable for a VFR night flight.
However, the graphic area forecast for the proposed flight indicated visibilities below VFR minimum. That information is accessible by phoning a Nav Canada flight information centre, the report says.
Investigators found no record of Balisky taking that step.
In its news release, the TSB stressed that thorough flight planning, including accessing all available weather information, is critical to avoid situations that require difficult in-flight decisions.
Since 2013, the TSB has investigated seven other fatal accidents involving private aircraft on night VFR flights.
"Simply put, night VFR flight inherently offers the pilot limited visual cues to be able to see and avoid worsening weather conditions," says the report.
The report repeats its call for Canadian Aviation Regulations to clearly define what is meant by "visual reference to the surface" with night flights, something the board first requested in 2016.
Without an updated definition, "night visual flight rules flights may be conducted with inadequate visual references, which increases the risk of an accident as a result of controlled-flight-into-terrain or a loss of control," stated the report.
The crash happened about 500 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.