The weather was deteriorating rapidly on the morning of March 17 as the pilots of a Northern Thunderbird Air flight searched for Runway 19 in Blue River, B.C. In the dull light and falling snow, they finally made out the 5,000-foot stretch of pavement a minute before landing, descending at 300 kilometres per hour.
The underused runway hadn't been plowed since the previous evening and snow dusted the surface, hiding patches of ice. Without painted markings or lights, the pilots struggled to distinguish the airstrip from the high snowbanks surrounding it. A month earlier, a flight from the same airline had a difficult landing in similar conditions.
In the last moments of the flight, the pilots realized they were off the centre of the runway – or what appeared to be the centre in the snow. The strip was only 18.2 metres wide and the wingspan of the Beechcraft 1900 was 17.6 metres. At 11:29 a.m., the flight touched down and the left wheels immediately snagged in deep snow, pulling the speeding 19-seat aircraft into a snowbank.
No one was injured in the 2012 incident, deemed a runway excursion in safety jargon, but the airplane was seriously damaged.
With flights to smaller aerodromes across British Columbia's north increasing due to new resource projects, pilots face challenges and risks not found in the province's south. Federal safety regulators identify runway excursions as one of the safety issues that pose the greatest risk to Canadians in aviation.
Some of the concerns in rural areas seem almost comic, if not for the potentially fatal consequences. Unpaved runways are a favourite target of gophers, leaving deep holes that break landing gears as planes fall into them. Moose and black bear stumble across airstrips, requiring planes to circle as pilots call for help.
Unlike flying in metropolitan areas, pilots operating out of small airfields lean on informal connections, requesting weather reports and information by radio and cellphone from friends and the few professionals on the ground.
Serious incidents like the one at Blue River are rare – once-every-five-year occurrences – but they illustrate the limitations pilots face during landings unaided by instrumentation or external help. There have been 47 runway excursions in B.C. since 2010, many of them very minor. Blue River is the exception.
"The conditions were extreme for the type of aircraft operating into it," Transportation Safety Board investigator Bill Yearwood said after the report into the Blue River incident was released in February, 2014. "With this airport and these conditions, it was a trap for the pilots."
Northern Thunderbird Air no longer flies into Blue River. After the accident, the company decided the risk was too great. Mike Harris, the airline's general manager, cited snow removal as one of the main problems.
"The winter maintenance presented undesirable conditions. Sometimes, it wasn't being done the way we wanted it to be done and we were given wrong information," he said.
The runway at Blue River was unmanned and registered to a local helicopter skiing company. It is no longer kept open during the winter. According to the TSB, a local plowing company was paid to clear the runway as part of their duties at the time of the incident. The plow operators were given no special instructions for the airstrip and simply pushed the snow to the edges of the pavement. The setup is similar at aerodromes across the province.
Any area where a plane or helicopter lands is defined as an aerodrome under federal rules. It is a category so broad that it includes lakes and grassy strips. The Canadian Flight Supplement, the pilots' bible containing information on aerodromes across the country, lists hundreds of airstrips across rural B.C. Many of the entries contain warnings about animals and gopher holes.
"The problem is that most of them have little maintenance or not at all," said Dan McKeith, speaking with the clipped syllables of a 40-year veteran of single-engine aircraft. He faults the lack of information pilots face as the biggest problem.
There is no magic solution to making landings safer in isolated areas. Well-rested pilots flying slowly in clear weather, leaving plenty of time to react and make adjustments is the safest bet.