Disaster at the Qualicum Beach airport

Exercise designed to test local crews’ response to trouble

Darren Buchanan plays the role of an air crash victim during Exercise Fireball at the Qualicum Beach municipal airport.

Darren Buchanan plays the role of an air crash victim during Exercise Fireball at the Qualicum Beach municipal airport.

When the call came in from the Qualicum Beach municipal airport Wednesday, the news wasn’t good. An aircraft with nine passengers crashed on takeoff when it collided with another plane touching down in the wrong direction.

Some passengers were trapped inside the smoking wreckage while others were scattered around the ground, having been thrown from their aircraft by the force of the impact. The plane that had been landing flipped over and careened into the parking lot, trapping several people in their cars. Several homes in the Chartwell neighbourhood had been damaged. At least one passenger was dead.

Emergency crews raced to the scene, with Qualicum Beach firefighters putting out a call for mutual aid to the Dashwood hall. BC Ambulance staff were quickly on the scene, as were, police and airport staff. Emergency Social Services wasn’t far behind. Meanwhile, Arrowsmith Search and Rescue put out a call for its members to attend and the Qualicum Beach Aero Club opened its hangar and office as a command centre.

As the victims were assessed and stabilized however, the one confirmed fatality stirred and looked around.

He wasn’t really dead and the airplane, though a wreck, had been towed to the crash site.

It was all part of Exercise Fireball, a Transport Canada-mandated training exercise to test the readiness of emergency personnel to respond to an aircraft emergency.

Airport manager Tudy Coates said the exercise was valuable for all those who took part.

“It’s a great opportunity for all our partners to get together and practice for that worst case scenario that we never want to see but we need to be ready for,” she said.

Qualicum Beach councillor Bill Luchtmeijer said the exercise helped to clarify any pitfalls to emergency response at the facility.

“It will point out anything that might have been overlooked in the paper exercises, which are done more often,” he said.  “For instance, there’s a lock on the gate. Who has the key so they can get through?”

His council colleague, Dave Willie, agreed.

“For BC Ambulance, after a couple of years in Qualicum Beach, they will know the location of everything intimately,” Willie said. “However, that may not be the case with the airport. If something has happened at hangar six, well, where is it?”

Qualicum Beach Fire Chief Darryl Kohse said the live exercise is mandated by Transport Canada once every four years, while exercises on paper are required annually.