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Passengers called loved ones to say goodbye during B.C. helicopter flight struck by lightning


Some passengers cried, some held hands and others called their spouses to say goodbye as their commuter helicopter on a routine flight between Vancouver and Victoria rolled onto its side and fell toward the ocean, damaged by a lightning strike Tuesday.

Lecia Stewart gripped the hands of the man and the woman seated next to her – three strangers now united by the harrowing experience, she says.

The HeliJet flight departed Vancouver at 9:11 a.m. with two pilots and 12 passengers on board. The aircraft was crossing the Strait of Georgia when a lightning strike sheared off two of the helicopter's tail rotor blades and shorted out the aircraft's control and navigation systems.

"Right after we got off the coast we went straight into a cloud bank – a very claustrophobic experience," said Stewart, who has taken the flight several times over the years.

"Suddenly, off to the left of the helicopter, there's a big flash and a bang," she said. "I see the pilots both look at each other, then the helicopter starts to swoon back and forth, almost like you're in a washing machine."

The Sikorsky S-76 helicopter rolled sideways and began to fall from approximately 1,280 metres (4,200 feet) above sea level.

"So I'm pretty sure we're done at this point," said Stewart, who was seated in the first row, directly behind the cockpit. "But as soon as we got out of the cloudbank, the pilot told us he was able to use hydraulics to get control of the helicopter even though all of the electronics went out."

Without navigational instruments, the pilots used visual cues to find Victoria and point the damaged aircraft toward its destination.

"We kept dropping down and bouncing around," Stewart said. "The two gentlemen in the seat behind me called their wives to say goodbye."

HeliJet president and CEO Daniel Sitnam said all 12 passengers and two pilots were unharmed when they disembarked in Victoria.

Stewart said the senior pilot debriefed the passengers and explained how he was able to use the helicopter's manual hydraulic system to safely land the craft.

A detail of the damage the HeliJet aircraft sustained on Oct. 24, 2023. (Supplied)

Many of the passengers exchanged business cards and agreed to contact each other to discuss the ordeal, if necessary, Stewart said.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada said Tuesday it was still collecting data on the incident. HeliJet says it is working with the safety board to determine what happened and to assess the damage to the helicopter.

Stewart opted to take the ferry home Tuesday night rather than the flight she already had planned.

"It was absolutely traumatizing," she said. "I figured for sure it was over. This is my day, it's over."

Damage sustained by the HeliJet helicopter on Oct. 24, 2023. (CTV News)

Environment and Climate Change Canada had issued a special weather statement for the region, warning of heavy rains and high winds over Greater Victoria the southern Gulf Islands.

The HeliJet president says the air carrier's executive team found no other reports of lightning activity in the area prior to or after the strike, calling it a "needle-in-the-haystack scenario."

Armel Castellan, an Environment Canada meteorologist, tells CTV News there were other lightning strikes in the area and that information provided to aviators by NavCan also warned of the potential for lightning.

"From an aviation perspective, the products did show thunderstorm activity as a possibility,” he said.

Shawn Pruchnicki, an aviation safety professor at Ohio State University, said the quick reactions of the pilots likely saved everyone on board.

He said it is far too early to say whether or not the inclement weather was severe enough for the company to consider cancelling the flight and that information will come out during the investigation.

"We have to see how close it was to the convective weather, what the weather reports actually were,” Pruchnicki said. “There's a lot of questions that need to be answered before we can even start thinking about a probable cause and why this went the way it did." Top Stories


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