A helicopter air ambulance belonging to Ontario’s provincially funded service, Ornge, crashed shortly after takeoff May 31, killing its four-man crew of two pilots and two flight paramedics. The 1980 Sikorsky S-76A took off from rural Moosonee along St. James Bay at 12:10 a.m. en route to the remote First Nation village of Attawapiskat for a patient pick-up. It crashed almost immediately after takeoff into a densely wooded area less than 3,000 feet off the airport and burned.
Ornge officials characterized weather at the time of the crash as “adequate,” with some low clouds and mist. Due to darkness and poor weather at the crash site, a Bell CH-146 Griffon (Canadian military 412EP) rescue helicopter from Canadian Forces Base Trenton had to turn back and CF rescuers parachuting from a C-130 did not reach the scene until six hours later, when they confirmed the fatalities. The patient was later transported by fixed-wing aircraft.
Moosonee has a limited road system and is accessible only by aircraft or train.
Investigators from Canada’s Transportation Safety Board said they did not find initial evidence of mechanical failure. Nevertheless, Ornge immediately grounded its remaining S-76s for safety checks. A cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder were recovered from the wreckage in good condition. Investigators are looking into other factors, including crew fatigue and spatial disorientation. The crew was working a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.
Officials said the wreckage and tree debris pattern suggests the S-76 made a left turn shortly after takeoff, followed by a shallow descent into trees and the ground. The debris field was confined to an area 410 feet wide and 1,329 feet long.
Ornge kept six S-76As for duty in rural areas after acquiring a fleet of 12 new AgustaWestland AW139s in 2010. Two of those helicopters were never placed into service, deemed surplus, and sold earlier this year. The S-76s were acquired from Canadian Helicopters when Ornge was formed in 2005 and flown by CHC pilots under contract until early last year. Ornge has been beset by widely publicized staffing problems that negatively impacted dispatch rates and came to light during Provincial Parliament hearings last year. Last year Ornge told AIN that it was well on its way to correcting the issue.
The pilot-in-command of the accident helicopter, Don Filitter, flew part-time for Ornge in addition to his duties as chief helicopter pilot for the Ministry of Natural Resources. First officer Jacques Dupuy joined Ornge in August last year. The crew’s experience in the S-76 could not be ascertained from Ornge.