A veteran local pilot who's flown into Griffith Island hundreds of times says the airstrip there can make for a tricky landing.
Three men from Sudbury were killed Thursday afternoon as their Cessna amphibious plane made its final approach to land on the island's 2,700-foot grass airstrip. The plane crashed into the water well short of the runway, and the three men were unable to escape the wreckage. When police arrived at the scene, the plane was partially submerged.
Mervyn Cowen, owner and manager of Brucelandair, has been flying planes since the late 1950s and is very familiar with Griffith Island. His company, which flies all over the world, used to fly regular charters in and out of the island. The island is home to a private sport shooting and hunting club.
“It’s a sad situation,” Cowen said of the crash. “I hate to see something like that happen. It gets so much publicity, but a car accident with three people killed hardly gets anything.”
Cowen said the airstrip is “a little tricky getting into,” especially if a pilot is unfamiliar with it. It's a good airstrip that's well maintained, but its relatively short length can be intimidating for some, he said.
“So you want to get down and you don't want to be too fast or you can go off the end,” he said. “You’re landing on 2,700 feet, and at one time when I learned to fly, every airport was about 2,500 feet. But the pilots now are used to a much larger strips, and if they haven't had a lot of experience going into a short grass strip, it has a certain technique that you do.”
On a long strip, Cowen said it's almost as though the plane can land itself. Not so on a shorter one. “On a big long runway you can let the airplane land you. In other words, you have to fly the airplane (on a shorter strip) and you just can't let it sort of go on its own.”
The Griffith Island airstrip is located at the eastern edge of the island and fairly close to the shoreline, Cowen said, “so you're pointing your nose down just slightly above the bank (shoreline) and then flaring over the bank and getting down on the runway and stopped and so on.
“I don't like to speculate, but I know what he would be encountering coming in there on final approach. And I know what kind of winds and conditions he would be encountering. I'm not saying this is what happened to him . . . but to a lot of pilots it's unnerving having the shoreline up in front of you,” Cowen added.
He also wonders if the warm weather could have been a contributing factor, which he said can make an airplane behave differently. Temperatures Thursday were in the mid to high 20s, and the warmth can result in thinner air and possibly downdrafts.
“You need so much air passing over the wing, and the airspeed indicator tells you that, and just in the blink of an eye, you can see the airspeed indicator drop by 10 miles an hour or more,” Cowen said. “It depends on the wind shear and so on. You've got to keep your speed up a little bit, and if you haven't been in on short strips and that, you're a little nervous about doing that in case you overshoot.”
Cowen has owned the same type of Cessna aircraft, a 1956 model, and called it “an excellent airplane.” The age of it is not concerning, he said. “Absolutely not. If it's maintained properly, it's as good as a brand new airplane.”
The plane that crashed Thursday had its wheels down, which meant the pilot was planning to land on the airstrip and not in the water, Cowen said. He knows what happens when an amphibious plane tries to land in water with its wheels down, because he saw it happen in the 1970s while fishing off Red Bay.
“And he just flipped immediately, the airplane went on its back. It will flip you so fast, you won't even see it.”
If the pilot suddenly needs to land in water instead of land, it can take 15 or 20 seconds to retract the wheels in the wheel well and close the doors, otherwise water gets inside and damages the floats, he said. Water makes for a very hard landing, he added.
“They say it's harder than land, I've often heard that. It has no give to it.”
Cowen is not surprised the plane didn't sink to the bottom of the bay. Once flipped, he said the plane's floats would keep it floating upside down. He's unsure why the men on board couldn't get out.
“If they hit hard nose first or something, then maybe they could have been stunned and they weren't able to get out,” he said.
The type of plane involved in Thursday's crash “is a good easy flying airplane and one of Cessna's excellent models,” he said. “They’re all over the world.”
Cowen, who's flown small planes across the Atlantic and in and out of the Caribbean for years, says they're a safe mode of transportation. He said he doesn't recall any crashes or mishaps of Thursday's magnitude off Griffith or in the area before.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is investigating the crash. Investigators were still on the scene over the weekend.