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Monday, July 26, 2010

Pilot survives fiery fighter jet crash in Alberta


link to gallery: Pilot survives fiery fighter jet crash in Alberta

CF-18 crash in Lethbridge, July 23. Pilot Capt. Brian Bews ejected the plane and survived the crash.

CF-18 crash in Lethbridge, July 23. Pilot Capt. Brian Bews ejected the plane and survived the crash.

Photograph by: Courtesy, Copyright 2010 Kurt's Kustom Photography

LETHBRIDGE, Alta. — A CF-18 fighter jet crashed while conducting an air-show practice flight at an Alberta airport Friday, but the pilot was able to safely eject before it exploded on impact.

Capt. Brian Bews was piloting the CF-18 Hornet, which was set to perform at the Alberta International AirShow this weekend, when the crash occurred at Lethbridge County Airport just after noon.

Capt. Holly Brown, a spokeswoman for 1 Canadian Air Division, said Bews is a demonstration pilot for that specific aircraft, noting his vast experience.

“Capt. Bews, like any of our F-18 pilots, is highly trained, highly skilled and highly capable,” Brown said. “It’s a long journey to become an F-18 pilot, and our demo pilots are exceptionally proven. It’s an honour to be selected as a demo pilot.

“Unfortunately today, something happened. He was going through his practice sessions and something happened. He had to eject and the aircraft impacted the airfield.”

The pilot was about 30 metres from the ground when he ejected, and could be seen coming to rest just outside the ball of flame that erupted when the aircraft collided with the ground.

RCMP said Bews was brought to hospital and his injuries are not believed to be life-threatening.

“We’re just really thankful that he’s OK,” Brown said, who would not provide details on his condition, citing the Privacy Act.

It’s not clear whether the plane ran into trouble during mid-air manoeuvres, or on takeoff or landing, but Brown said the Department of National Defence’s Flight Safety Team is investigating.

Private pilot Nathaniel Lockheart was watching the practice runs when he noticed something was wrong.

"He came in right over us, probably only 100 to 200 feet high,” he said. “It looked like he lost power out of his right engine. Only one afterburner was on and it was burning red hot.

"He looked very close to stalling. I knew what was going to happen: he wasn’t going to make it out of this one."

After Bews ejected, it appeared he was dangerously close the massive fireball. The chute didn’t appear to open fully and Lockheart ran to help.

"It looked like he was in the fire,” he said. “We jumped the barbed wire fence to see if we could help.”

Luckily, Lockheart watched as the pilot stood up and gathered his crumpled parachute.

"That’s one of my favourite airplanes and to actually see one crash is just unreal,” Lockheart said.

Kurtis Koop spent the morning watching the fighter jet as he worked outside framing a house with friends.

"I was watching the thing all morning. We were all in awe," said Koop.

But then, he watched as the tail end of the plane swung low, and the aircraft dipped behind a hill.

"Then I saw the smoke come up. It was a straight stack of black smoke, thick. I said, ‘No, he couldn’t have crashed.’”

“He looked like he was in complete control the whole time. The next thing I know, it’s up in flames. I can’t believe I saw it.”

Officials from the Department of Transportation are also working on the investigation.

Brown would not speculate on a timeline as to when crash details would be released.

“Some investigations take longer than others, but the bottom line is the investigation will take as long as it needs so we can properly examine the incident and take whatever actions are necessary,” Brown said.

Canada’s fleet of CF-18 Hornet fighter jets will continue to fly despite the crash.

“This is an isolated incident with one aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Midas Vogan, commanding officer of the 419 Moose Squadron based in Cold Lake.

Bews, who is originally from Eatonia, Sask., is described on the DND’s website as being a motorcycle enthusiast, with more than 1,400 flight hours logged since his military career began in 1999. Some 1,200 of those hours have been logged on the CF-18 Hornet.

His piloting career started in 1995 in Okotoks, Alta., when he earned his private pilot’s licence.

The pilot’s aunt, Lenora Bews, said he loved flying from the time he was in his mid-teens.

She said he would often fly over Eatonia, southwest of Saskatoon, whenever he came by for a visit to the family farm.

“Flying was always in his blood,” Lenora Bews said. “Some young kids get an idea of what they want to do and they don’t think of anything but that.

“He wasn’t interested in farming like his older brothers, so he’s lucky he got into that. (The crash) is unfortunate, but it’s fortunate he wasn’t killed.”

After some uncertainty as to the fate of this weekend’s air show, Robb Engen, president of air show association, said the event will proceed as scheduled Saturday and Sunday.

Engen said the decision was made after organizers met with Department of National Defence officials.

With files from Calgary Herald, Regina Leader-Post and Global News