In a terrifying sequence of events, many passengers found themselves praying, weeping, and bidding their loved ones farewell as their regular commuter helicopter, on its usual route between Vancouver and Victoria, suddenly lurched on its side and started its decent towards the sea. The aircraft was hit by a bolt of lightning on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday morning, turning the routine trip into a harrowing ordeal.
Lecia Stewart, one among the unfortunate passengers, described the feeling of unity that emerged among the strangers seated alongside her, their hands interwoven in solidarity during the distressing situation.
The surprisingly uneventful morning began when the HeliJet flight departed from Vancouver at precisely 9:11 a.m. But as the chopper was crossing the Strait of Georgia, an unexpected bolt of lightning struck with devastating precision, severing off two of the tail rotor blades and effectively short-circuiting the helicopter’s control and navigation systems.
Stewart, a veteran of this helijourney, paints a vivid picture. She articulates, “The ride turned nightmarish as we penetrated a cloud bank off the coast. The confined visibility was nerve-wracking”. She further adds, “Following a loud bang and a brilliant flash on the helicopter’s left side, the chopper began to oscillate violently like a rock in turbulent water”.
The dual-engine civilian helicopter, Sikorsky S-76, with its control systems down and navigation instruments obsolete, began to roll sideways from a staggering height of approximately 4,200 feet.
In the face of impending doom, Stewart recounts the words exchanged in the cockpit. “When we emerged from the cloud bank, the pilot managed to announce over the loud thrum of the chopper that he could regain control using the hydraulics, despite the total electronics debacle”.
The pilots, though momentarily blind without navigational equipment, relied on visual markers to steer the severely damaged aircraft towards Victoria.
Stewart, a first-row passenger, describes the rest of the descent as a rough tumble. “We kept free-falling and swaying irregularly. Fearing the worst, the two men seated behind me made heartbreaking farewell calls to their wives.”
In an extraordinary display of skill and composure, both pilots and all 12 passengers disembarked safely on reaching Victoria. Daniel Sitnam, HeliJet’s president, and CEO confirmed that no physical harm had befallen on anyone aboard.
Post-landing, the senior pilot briefed the passengers, clarifying how he had deftly manipulated the manual hydraulic system to land.
Consequently, a bond of shared horror and survival formed among the passengers, resulting in an exchange of business cards with a promise to stay connected.
Amidst varying reports of the weather conditions and the bolt out of the blue, the incident is under detailed scrutiny. HeliJet is in active collaboration with Canada’s Transportation Safety Board to probe further into the terrifying event and the thrashing endured by the helicopter.
The haunting experience has affected Stewart deeply, leading her to abandon her flight plans and seek the relative comfort of a ferry ride home that evening.
The HeliJet management acknowledged the prevailing weather warnings and high winds on the coast at Victoria. However, they highlighted the rarity of the lightning strike, observing no other instances before or after the event.
The incident reverberates with stiff reminders about awareness and safety measures in aviation. Only after a comprehensive examination of all aspects, such as the proximity of the flight route to stormy areas and the severity of the weather, will it be possible to deduce the chain of events that lead to such a traumatic experience. Precipitous conclusions could prematurely point fingers, instead of allowing for a full understanding of the situation.