The worst sound from the engine while flying is no sound at all.
Three passengers and a pilot heard that dreadful silence while en route to Dawson City on May 8.
The Great River Air chartered flight, coming from an exploration camp about 100 kilometres south of Dawson, was crippled by complete engine failure about 30 minutes into the small, one-engine Cessna’s flight.
“We heard a sound from the engine compartment that clearly was not normal,” said passenger Scott Keesey. “And then there was no engine noise.
“The pilot was very calm and didn’t panic. In fact, there was no panic in the aircraft at all. We could see right below us that there was a number of islands on the Yukon River with big gravel bars and sandbars.”
Because of heavy clouds, pilot John Hill had decided to fly the aircraft at a low altitude, following the Yukon River to Dawson. The river would end up being the flight’s saving grace.
A week earlier, it could have been a watery grave.
An ice jam had released just days earlier, lowering water levels and exposing more potential landing spots.
“We could see one in particular that he was dropping and banking towards,” said Keesey. “He calmly indicated that we were going to be landing.
“It happened very quickly, but we could see the whole way that he had a spot in mind, and it looked like a good one. So we just crossed our fingers that we’d make it there.”
Hill aimed the Cessna at a gravel bar. The first touchdown was hard enough to snap a front wheel off.
After a couple skips along the bar, the nose of the plane dug into the soft ground and the aircraft flipped onto its roof, bringing it to a stop facing the direction it had come from.
“It was all over very quickly,” said Keesey. “In these types of events, the timing and sequence gets a little bit foggy … maybe it was minute between when the engine failed and when we came to a stop.
“As far as I’m concerned, the pilot made an absolutely remarkable landing under the circumstances, with no power,” he added. “He was very deliberate and very focused on what he was doing. Frankly, I think he picked a pretty good spot to go down.”
Access Consulting Group, an environmental consulting company based in Whitehorse, chartered the flight. On board was Keesey, a manager with Access, employee Anthony Bier and Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation’s employee Darren Bullen, who was at the camp as an observer.
Not everyone walked away unscathed. Bier’s seatbelt failed when the plane rolled onto its roof, throwing him onto the ceiling. He suffered a compacted vertebrae in his back.
“Whether or not (the seatbelt failure) caused his compressed vertebrae … we’re not sure and I don’t know if we ever will,” said Keesey.
Once the plane came to a stop on its roof, Hill was the first to get free. He managed to open his door and immediately helped his passengers exit the toppled plane.
When all four were out of the aircraft, spirits were high.
“We did some immediate high-fives,” said Keesey. “We were all feeling pretty thankful and grateful. We congratulated the pilot on the amazing landing and he was congratulating us, on what I’m not sure. We were all pretty ecstatic to be in the shape we were in.
“It quickly became apparent that Anthony was pretty injured. It quickly became a first-aid situation and I began first aid for Anthony. I knew there was nothing I was going to be able to do about his back and I suspected he was going to go into shock.
“We kept him warm and still.”
Equipped with safety gear, including satellite phones, they were able to contact Dawson RCMP who mobilized a pair of rescue helicopters through Trans North. The helicopters arrived about 90 minutes after the crash.
“Our company is focused on safety and emergency preparations, so we had all the equipment and supplies that we needed,” said Keesey.
A representative of Great River Air would not speak on the record while the cause of the crash is still under investigation.
“Our company here is committed to safe work practices,” said Keesey. “This is something that was largely out of our control … What this has raised for us is a question of what can we learn from this and are there things we can do to reduce the likelihood of this type of event or even more tragic events.
“We can’t wait for any kind of investigation that’s happening to come out of this; we’re going to be initiating our own third-party investigation … to re-evaluate our aviation policy and see if there are choices we could make to reduce the likelihood of this happening.
“Perhaps our policy (could be) we only fly in double engine planes now.”
Contact Tom Patrick at