Plane that crashed on Gabriola Island was travelling from California to Nanaimo

The pilot of a small private plane that crashed in a wooded area of Gabriola Island, killing everyone on board, has been identified by friends as Alex Bahlsen, an experienced aviator and flight instructor.

Bahlsen, 61, who recently moved with his wife to Mill Bay from Calgary, crashed on the northwest corner of the Gulf Island, east of Nanaimo.

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Friend Rasmus Rydstrøm-Poulsen, who was at home in Calgary on Wednesday caring for a newborn as he tried to come to grips with his friend’s death, said Bahlsen was “a very, very, extremely capable flight instructor.”

Bahlsen, originally from Germany, flew small aircraft, including float planes and helicopters, and owned a flight school and airport in Cayley, Alta., Rydstrøm-Poulse said. The business is called A.J. Flying Ranch.

Rydstrøm-Poulsen said he has flown with Bahlsen many times and his friend was known to fly frequently.

“This is the last thing I was expecting,” Rydstrøm-Poulse said of Bahlsen, who has two adult daughters and is a grandfather. “He was incredible. He was absolutely wonderful. He was an adventure of a person.

“This is a complete shock.”

Multiple people are believed to have died when the small twin-engine propeller aircraft piloted by Bahlsen crashed in what witnesses described as a “huge explosion” on Gabriola Island Tuesday night.

The Transportation Safety Board, which was at the site on Wednesday, said the flight departed from Eastern Sierra Regional Airport in Bishop, California, en route to Nanaimo. The aircraft was in the process of an instrument approach to a runway at Nanaimo Airport when the crash occurred.

The TSB said its investigators were unable to determine the registration of the aircraft, which was “extensively broken up,” and the total number of people on board has not been verified, nor has anyone on board been identified. It said investigators will continue to collect data and survey the crash site today.

B.C. RCMP spokesman Cpl. Chris Manseau said the plane crashed on the northwest corner of the island in a residential area, on Decourcy Drive, close to Twin Beaches.

It’s horrible and tragic for the families of the deceased and for nearby residents who saw the plane crash, Manseau said.

The B.C. Coroners Service said confirmation of the number and identities of those who died and notifying family members could take several days. Spokesman Andy Watson said identifying the dead could involve matching multiple pieces of information, including the plane’s manifest, identification found at the scene and identification of the human remains.

“That is something we will release as soon as we’re confident in that information,” Watson said. “We’re working on it, but we’re going to wait until we’re 100 per cent confident in our information before we release that.”

Reports of a plane crash came in to first responders just after 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

Will Sprogis, chief of the Gabriola Volunteer Fire Department, said he was on his way to an evening of training when he got a call about the crash and went directly to the site, where he saw the scattered remains of the aircraft. Three fires were burning intensely and the smell of aviation fuel was strong. “Three main parts of the plane [were] on fire,” said Sprogis.

Fire trucks and firefighters arrived minutes later. One of their first tasks was to post warning signs around a power pole that had been struck by the plane on its way down.

Sprogis said it’s fortunate for nearby residents that the plane crashed in a park that’s about an acre in size and provides public access to Twin Beaches. “It was just lucky that it crashed there rather than ending up on a house,” he said. “It’s quite a densely populated neighbourhood.”

Gabriola resident Dave Holme said he saw the plane hurtle toward the ground and ran to look for survivors. “I saw the plane spiralling toward the ground. The engines were going … but they didn’t sound normal,” Holme said. “About five houses down from us, I saw it nose-dive into the ground, and then the explosion was just immense … all the houses completely shook.”

Holme said he ran into the bushes at the crash site and yelled to see if anyone was alive and able to respond.

“I was probably within, I’d have to say, five feet of the fuselage … and just fire — all around me, the ground was literally on fire.

“I saw the rear end of the plane sticking out of the ground. … I couldn’t see any wings. Part of the motor was on one part of the property and the other part of the motor was over on the other side of the property. It hit with such force, it just disintegrated the plane.”

Gabriola resident Jean Wyenberg said it was dark and foggy when the crash occurred.

She said she had the television on when she heard a loud explosion that sounded “like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It was loud. It was pretty scary. You just don’t know what it is.

“I thought, ‘OK I’m still here so what was it?’ ”

Wyenberg called 911, then stepped outside her house. She said she helped direct emergency vehicles to the site off Decourcy Drive, but didn’t go into the crash scene because she didn’t want to get in the way of emergency responders.

“How terrifying that must have been to be in that plane and realize what was about to happen,” said Wyenberg. “And it must have been horrifying for those who saw it.”

B.C. Emergency Health Services said two ambulances stationed on the island were dispatched to the scene and five others joined them by ferry.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

— With files from Richard Watts and The Canadian Press
 

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