Calgary university in mourning after death of two flight instructors
Published Tuesday, February 14, 2017 9:40AM EST Last Updated Tuesday, February 14, 2017 9:30PM EST
Calgary's Mount Royal University has grounded its school aviation program fleet after a crash west of the city that killed two of its flight instructors.
RCMP said the crash happened Monday east of Highway 40, northwest of Cochrane.
The accident was witnessed by another aircraft and reported to authorities at about 5 p.m. Alberta EMS later said no one had been taken to hospital.
Mount Royal University President David Docherty said the school is grieving.
"Today has been an extremely difficult day for everyone here on campus," Docherty said Tuesday. "At a difficult time our sincerest condolences, first and foremost, go to the families of those instructors."
Docherty identified one of the dead pilots as Jeffrey Bird. Later Tuesday evening, the university identified the second pilot as Reynold Johnson.
Bird's Facebook page said he joined the university as a pilot instructor in January and had left a job as a pilot instructor with the Royal Canadian Air Force at a base in Moose Jaw, Sask., in November.
Before that, he served as a pilot in Edmonton with 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, including a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Docherty said he was an experienced pilot with more than 1,800 flying hours.
"I've spoken to the family and can tell you they are understandably heartbroken," Docherty said.
The university said Johnson, meanwhile, had a 35-year career in aviation with Air Canada and then Jazz and was an alumnus of the University of Lethbridge.
The two-year aviation program has 60 students and, prior to the accident, had a fleet of five single-engine Cessnas and three twin-engine Technams. The two pilots were flying one of the twin-engine aircraft.
"We're grounding the fleet temporarily and we will be working with Transport Canada to make sure we're not putting any plane in the air," said Docherty.
"We don't know the cause. It's too early to say anything definitive but the planes are on the ground right now."
Docherty said the university planes are in the air 364 days a year and both pilots were experienced. It wasn't unusual for two pilots to be in the plane together, he said.
"They were in an area that's a normal path for instruction to take place and it's not uncommon for instructors to be up in a plane together."
The deaths have shaken students in the program. Most showed up for the news conference to show their respect.
"When we found out what happened, myself and about 40 of my friends spent the night crammed into a residence room until two in the morning talking about our favourite memories from these two extraordinary flight instructors," said Luc Sinal, president of the aviation student executive.
"It was the passion for aviation and the love of flying that brought us towards this program and these instructors only helped bring that passion out and helped us discover the love of flying we had."
Sinal said the students spent a lot of one-on-one time with the 12 instructors in the cockpit, in the hangar and hanging out at the university.
"They become like family to us."
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is investigating.
Cpl. Curtis Peters, an RCMP spokesman, said there are rural properties and ranches in the area where the crash occurred.
He said police, an air ambulance, military aircraft and the Calgary police helicopter were part of a major emergency response to the area.
"They discovered the site and unfortunately both of the people on board were killed," he said.