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Weather a factor in fatal 2021 crash of plane towing marriage banner in Montreal: TSB

A member of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada inspects the wreckage of a plane at a crash site in Montreal, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. The small plane crashed on Île Ste-Hélène, near Montreal’s Old Port on Saturday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL — A fatal crash near Old Montreal in 2021 of a small plane towing a marriage proposal banner was caused by several factors including weather and engine trouble, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada concluded in a report released Wednesday.

The lone passenger died and the pilot was badly hurt when a Cessna 172M pulling a banner reading "will you marry me" crashed near the Concorde Bridge of Montreal's Île Ste-Hélène on Oct. 2, 2021. The safety board cited a combination of factors, including weather, engine trouble and pilot decision-making to explain how a flight that was only supposed to last eight minutes went so wrong. 

Investigators said the plane was flying over the St. Lawrence River when the engine first began to sputter. The pilot prepared for an emergency landing on the Concorde Bridge, only to find it full of concrete construction barriers. He then tried to land on nearby Pierre-Dupuy Avenue, with tragic results.

"The aircraft’s left wing grazed some treetops, the aircraft began to cartwheel, and then it struck the ground," the report said. "A post-impact fire broke out just under a minute after impact." 

The badly injured pilot managed to escape the wreckage but was unable to rescue the passenger, who remained trapped inside. While the report found no signs of mechanical engine failure in the plane, it concluded that rainy and overcast weather conditions were favourable to ice building up in the plane's carburetor.

"Given the amount of ice that was quite likely in the carburetor when the carburetor heat was turned on, the melted ice entered the engine causing an additional loss of power," the report read.

Weather conditions forced the pilot to fly at an altitude of 500 feet above sea level rather than the planned 1,200 feet, giving him little time to react when something went wrong. The flight was bound by visual flight rules, or VFR, which state the pilot should be able to keep "visual reference to the surface" and have visibility of at least three miles.

The report said the pilot decided to take off despite knowing about the poor conditions, likely because of time constraints and what the TSB called "plan-continuation bias," which makes a person reluctant to alter their plans despite changing conditions.

"Weather forecasts indicated unfavourable conditions, making it difficult to meet the minimum requirements for a VFR flight; however, the pilot decided to take off and proceed with the flight at an altitude of 500 feet above sea level (ASL), likely under the influence of an unconscious cognitive bias and the time constraints to complete the flight," the report said.

While the pilot held an appropriate licence that was obtained in 2006, the report concluded that neither he nor the passenger should have been in the air that day. 

Regulations stipulate that passengers accompanying pilots who are carrying out aerial work — such as towing banners — are only allowed if their presence is essential, or with special permission — which the TSB said was not granted in this case. Furthermore, the pilot's medical certificate had expired one day before the crash, meaning that he should not have been allowed to fly.

Neither passenger nor pilot were wearing shoulder harnesses during the flight, the report found.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2023.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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