By ROB GILLIES Associated Press
TORONTO (AP) — A Canadian aerobatic jet crashed into a British Columbia neighborhood Sunday during a flyover intended to boost morale during the pandemic, killing one crew member, seriously injuring another and setting a house on fire. Video appeared to show the plane’s crew ejecting.
The crash left debris scattered across the neighborhood near the airport in the city of Kamloops, 260 miles (418 kilometers) northeast of Vancouver. The Snowbirds are Canada’s equivalent of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds or U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “deeply saddened” by the death of Capt. Jennifer Casey, who served as a spokesperson for the Snowbirds, and the injuring of Capt. Richard MacDougall, one of the team’s coordinators and pilot of the aircraft who survived landing on the roof of a house.
“For the past two weeks, the Snowbirds have been flying across the country to lift up Canadians during these difficult times.” Trudeau said in a statement. “Their flyovers across the country put a smile on the faces of Canadians everywhere and make us proud.”
The morale boosting mission is now on indefinite hold and the fleet of Tutor jets has been placed on operational pause.
Video posted to Twitter appears to show two Snowbirds taking off from Kamloops Airport. One of the aircraft subsequently climbed into the sky before rolling over and plunging to the ground. The video appears to show at least one person ejecting from the plane before it disappears behind a stand of trees and an explosion is heard.
A local resident who lives seven houses from the crash site and had been watching the aircraft said he saw “the Snowbird going straight down.”
“I saw what looked like a parachute about, say, 20 feet over the house, and it disappeared from sight, and the parachute hadn’t fully deployed yet — it was still sort of straight up and down,” Kenny Hinds said.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the cause of the crash is under investigation.
Rose Miller lives directly across the street from where the plane hit. She’d watched the Snowbirds arrive on Saturday, and she went to her front window on Sunday when she heard the roar of jet engines.
Miller said she heard a loud bang and wondered whether it might be a sonic boom. Then she watched the plane smash onto the ground.
“It looked to me like it was mostly on the road, but it just exploded. It went everywhere,” she said. “In fact, I got a big, huge piece in my backyard. The cops said it was the ejection seat.”
Miller said a couple in their early 70s lives in the home. Both are OK, she said, noting that she’d spoken with them after they were evacuated to a nearby street. The woman had been in the basement while the man was behind the house.
Miller said section of roof on a home on a nearby street has been covered up.
“This accident really shakes us to our core,” Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian said. About five houses had to be evacuated.
Operation Inspiration started in Nova Scotia earlier this month and features the team’s signature nine-jet formation. It was aimed at boosting morale amid the pandemic.
Marni Capostinsky said she lives across the street from the crash site and was out on the deck when she heard the plane getting closer.
“We ran out under the cover to look and saw something black coming towards us, everyone hit the deck it was so loud,” she said.
Hinds said it looked like the living room of the house where the crash occurred was on fire.
“I just started running down the street. And I got there maybe a minute after it crashed and there was a couple of residents that had their hoses out and they were trying to put the flames out because it hit a house,” he said.
It’s been a difficult few weeks for Nova Scotia and the Canadian military as a navy helicopter went down over the Mediterranean last month, killing six people — three of whom were from Nova Scotia. Casey’s roots were in Nova Scotia — a province that saw a gunman kill 22 people in rampage amid the pandemic last month.
Sunday’s crash follows the downing of another Snowbird in the U.S. state of Georgia last October, where the team was scheduled to perform in an air show. Capt. Kevin Domon-Grenier sustained minor injuries when he ejected from the plane, which crashed into a farmer’s field. No one else was hurt.
The Snowbirds have performed at airshows across Canada and the U.S. for decades and are considered a key tool for raising awareness about — and recruiting for — the air force. Eleven aircraft are used during shows, with nine flying and two kept as spares.
The air force obtained its Tutor jets in 1963 and has used them in air demonstrations since 1971. Prior to Sunday’s crash, seven pilots and one passenger had been killed and several aircraft had been lost over the course of the Snowbirds’ history.
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