Witnesses recall emergency plane landing in Ajax as expert praises pilot

A pilot en route to Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre airport from Oshawa was forced to make an emergency landing on Bayly Street East in Ajax after experiencing engine failure. Nick Westoll has more on incident.

As a pilot dealt with the frightening situation of losing engine power while flying over Ajax Monday evening, witnesses described how the airplane came to a sudden stop on a major street.

“We didn’t sleep last night because we really realized how things really could have gone sideways,” Debbie Gilker told CityNews on Tuesday steps away from where she and her husband John Gliker came upon the damaged Cessna 150M.

The longtime Ajax couple said they were returning home from Whitby after visiting their grandson.

It was at around 8 p.m. when they were on Bayly Street East not far from Audley Road South, a neighbourhood with agricultural, industrial and residential properties southwest of where Highways 412 and 401 meet, when John said he saw navigation lights in the sky.

“You could see the whole plane and it was a small plane flying very low over our heads flying eastbound extremely low, so I turned the truck around immediately and started following because we suspected that there was going to be a landing or crash and wanted to be there if the pilot needed any assistance,” he said.

“My first reaction was thinking it was going to crash and I couldn’t figure out why my husband was turning around going towards it … my idea was to keep going and get away from the crash site,” Debbie added.

The pair said within a minute, the plane stopped after hitting a traffic light at Audley Road South and Bayly Street East. It narrowly missed several electrical wires.

“We got to the intersection … and the plane had already landed and was facing the wrong way in the eastbound lanes,” John said, noting a woman near the intersection at the time approached the pilot.

“He was trapped because I’m guessing that the frame of a plane had been damaged and neither the doors would open. Eventually, he was able to get out.”

Debbie recalled how she tried to ensure the pilot wasn’t injured.

“I did speak to him and then he ended up on the phone after that, but he kept saying, ‘I’m all right,'” she said.

The airplane was moved to the dead end of Audley Road South not far from the crash scene and it was still there unsecured as of Tuesday evening. The ends of the wings, a top of the airplane above the cockpit and the left-side door appeared to sustain the most damage, but the airplane overall was intact.

Air traffic control recordings posted LiveATC.net detailed the trouble the pilot faced.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” the unidentified pilot can be heard saying after leaving Oshawa Executive Airport.

“Please help me. I’m at 2,000 feet.”

The pilot can be heard saying he needs to restart the engine. An air traffic controller asked the pilot to identify his location. The transmission broke up briefly at points, but the pilot said he could see a highway.

“Just watch for traffic and land wherever you think you can safely land, and get in touch with me when you’re down safely,” the controller said.

CityNews contacted the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), the federal agency that investigates incidents involving aircraft, to get an update on what happened in Ajax Monday evening.

A spokesperson said under its classification system where there were no fatalities or serious injuries and the damages are more minor, it’s unlikely there will be a more complex investigation. The statement said the Ajax incident would be “recorded in suitable scope for possible future safety analysis, statistical reporting, or archival purposes.”

A public TSB incident report provided to CityNews by the agency described the “forced landing.”

“An Island Air Flight School and Charters Inc. Cessna 150M experienced an engine failure while on a visual flight rules flight,” it said.

“During the landing roll, the aircraft’s left wing sustained some damage as the aircraft collided with a street pole. [Aviation authorities] and the operator reported the incident to the TSB. The TSB did not deploy.”

CityNews contacted Air Flight School and Charters Inc. multiple times on Tuesday to ask for comment, but a response wasn’t received by the time of publication.

Mason Fraser, the assistant chief flight instructor at Seneca College’s aviation program, wasn’t familiar with the specifics or the immediate circumstances leading up to the engine failure, but based on reports of the Ajax incident he had praise for the pilot.

“The pilot had to make some quick decisions as to where to land. They ultimately opted to land on the road and were able to walk away, which is a really good scenario at the end of the day. It doesn’t appear that anybody was hurt seriously and that’s an optimal result,” he told CityNews during an interview Tuesday afternoon.

“This pilot had to deal with a very stressful situation and a very difficult scenario.”

Fraser said pilots have to undergo training on “forced approaches,” noting testing happens on the ground and in the air. He emphasized that training is critical because of how quickly pilots need to make decisions.

“So every 1,000 feet of altitude or so they have about two minutes of time with which to do their procedures and everything,” he said.

“So pilots are trained generally to first identify what the problem was and try to correct it right away, see if they can restart the engine.

“Failing that, the next most important thing is where to land. This particular incident happened at night from what I understand, which actually raises the stakes quite a bit because it’s more difficult to identify places to land.”

When asked about what it’s like to operate a Cessna 150, Fraser said it’s among the most popular models in the 20th century to teach in. He also called it “very safe.”

“It has an excellent record of safety and training. It’s a very stable aircraft to fly, and very, very good for teaching people how to fly airplanes. It’s also an economical platform for flight school to teach and for students to learn,” Fraser said.

Given the mixed-use area in Ajax where the airplane landed, he said there are different challenges to contend with — especially at night.

“If you wouldn’t drive your own car across it — unless it was a four-by-four truck — certainly an airplane the size of the Cessna 150 that landed on the road there would have trouble with that terrain. The tires are very small. They can dig in easily to the snow or to the earth and it presents a lot of issues,” Fraser said when asked if the nearby field would have been a better alternative.

“The roadway is a little bit more like a runway, but it also has a lot of other things around it.

“Everything is a set of compromises and the pilot has to make that decision very quickly and ultimately in this case, they were able to walk away.”

With files from Kyle Hocking

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