Expert says it’s ‘not acceptable’ TSB hasn’t finished report on cause of 2017 Fond-du-Lac plane crash

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Investigators say it’s a complex probe with many factors to consider

Guy Quenneville · CBC News · Posted: Jul 29, 2020

A West Wind Aviation passenger plane crashed near Fond-du-Lac, Sask., shortly after takeoff in December 2017. One passenger died in hospital two weeks later. (Transportation Safety Board of Canada)

It’s been two and a half years since a passenger plane plummeted near the northern Saskatchewan community of Fond-du-Lac and people are asking why the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) still hasn’t publicly announced the cause of the crash. 

“I basically have heard what you’ve heard: not a whole lot,” said Fond du Lac Denesuline First Nation Chief Louis Mercredi, adding that he’s concerned about the holdup. 

“We all need to hear what really caused the plane to go down.”

A West Wind Aviation twin-turboprop plane crashed near the fly-in community’s airport shortly after takeoff on the evening of Dec. 13, 2017. 

Ten people on board were seriously injured. One of them died in hospital two weeks after the crash. Several passengers soon filed a class-action lawsuit against the Saskatoon-based airline.

The TSB, which investigates Canadian plane crashes, said it’s still working on its report — despite having entered the reporting phase in mid-2018.

“It is a complex investigation with many factors to consider and the investigation team must take the time necessary to complete its work,” TSB spokesperson Chris Krepski said on Monday, acknowledging that it “seems like a long time.”

Long past target deadline

Initially led by longtime TSB investigator David Ross (until he retired earlier this year), the West Wind probe is what the TSB calls a “class 2 investigation.” According to the TSB’s website, class 2 investigations are generally completed within about one year and eight months.

Krepski said that timeline is a target. When asked what is causing the delay in the Fond-du-Lac case, he said he could not provide specifics about an active investigation.

John Williams, a former superintendent with Transport Canada (which has assisted the TSB in its investigation), said the delay is “not acceptable at all.”

“Trust me: nobody’s been working for two years on that crash. They’ve got other things to do,” Williams said.

The TSB website lists 108 other air plane crashes that happened after the Fond-du-Lac crash. A third of those investigations remain active, while the rest have been completed.

Retired Transport Canada superintendent John Williams says it’s an “open and shut case” of ice contamination. (CBC)

An ‘open and shut case’: expert 

Williams called the West Wind investigation an “open and shut case” based on the information the TSB has put out so far.

“I just can’t believe that [the TSB] haven’t given out the report,” he said.  

According to the TSB, West Wind crew members did not de-ice the plane even though the plane had ice on its wings. The clouds above Fond-du-Lac that day contained patches of rough ice. 

“Conducting a takeoff with contaminants adhering to aircraft critical surfaces … can lead to difficulty controlling the aircraft or to a loss of control and collision with terrain,” the TSB said. 

Investigators have ruled out other factors such as engine failure, unqualified flight staff or an overweight plane.    

Williams pointed to ice contamination as the overwhelmingly likely cause of the crash. 

“It’s not debatable, really,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Your airplane crashed because you attempted to fly in icing conditions.’ There’s not an aircraft certified in Canada to take off with any ice on the wings.”

In December 2018 — one year after the crash — the TSB called on Transport Canada to work with airlines to improve de-icing procedures in remote airports across Canada. 

The recommendation came after the TSB found limited de-icing equipment at the Fond-du-Lac airport. Worse, a TSB poll of remote pilots found that almost 40 per cent of pilots are rarely or never able to have their planes de-iced at remote airports.

In response, West Wind said it had installed “enhanced de-icing equipment” across its northern operations. 

TSB officials did not comment on the cause of the Fond-du-Lac crash at the time. 

‘We have heard nothing’ 

Exactly when the cause will be publicly disclosed remains unclear. 

At some point in the TSB’s reporting process, the TSB drafts a confidential version of its report and shares it with the company involved in the crash. 

“They then have the opportunity to dispute or correct information they believe to be incorrect,” says the TSB website. “The board considers all representations before approving the final report, which is subsequently released to the public.”

Tracy Young-McLean, West Wind’s vice president of human resources, said the company has yet to receive any report from the TSB. 

“We have heard nothing. We don’t know why they have not issued their report,” she said. 

This flow chart outlines the TSB’s multi-step investigative process. (TSB)

Tony Merchant, the Regina-based lawyer representing passengers in the class-action lawsuit, said he’s not waiting on the investigation and is hopeful a class-action certification hearing will happen in the next six months.

Still, Merchant said he is also puzzled by how long the TSB’s work is taking, calling it “unusual, verging on the bizarre.”

“We then become suspicious that there’s something far more significant involved and that’s the reason for this unusual delay,” he said.