Dr. Bill Phipps’ biplane crashed into the ground during the Wings and Wheels air show at Nanaimo Airport Saturday. The Campbell River doctor is listed in stable condition after suffering facial and internal injuries in the crash.

‘He just flew into the ground’

Spectators watch helplessly as pilot crashes

Aviation enthusiasts went through a host of emotions following a crash at the Wings and Wheels air show at Nanaimo Airport.

Hundreds of people gathered under sunny skies Saturday for the air show when they witnessed a self-built Steen Skybolt biplane, piloted by Dr. Bill Phipps, 71, of Campbell River, crash into a grassy section off the tarmac.

Phipps is listed in stable condition after suffering significant facial and internal injuries as well as broken bones.

His plane crashed during his eight-minute opening performance at the Wings and Wheel event and was taken to Victoria Hospital.

Hundreds of people had gathered for the first air show hosted at the Nanaimo airport in three years, when the tragedy unfolded. Out of respect for the pilot, the rest of the airshow was cancelled and airport authority closed the airport to all incoming and outgoing air traffic.

According to Const. Gary O’Brien, Nanaimo RCMP spokeperson, the plane was destroyed on impact and no one else was injured or involved.

“The BC Ambulance as well as Cranberry Fire and Rescue were quickly on scene and were able to remove the male from the carnage,” he said. “Transport Canada is assuming the lead role in this investigation and the RCMP will be assisting.”

Nanaimo Flying Club President Barbara Riddy said the pilot had just undergone a medical exam before the show and was in peak condition before taking to the sky.

“For them to perform, they have to produce a valid medical certificate, and the medicals that Transport Canada gives you are quite rigorous,” she said.

Phipps’ performance opened the show and he was six minutes into an eight-minute routine.

Ray White of Nanaimo and his brother had front-row seats for the show and watched Phipps fly his plane past the crowd.

“He was supposed to do a four-point roll and while we’re certainly not aviation experts by any stretch of the imagination, we both thought he was a little low for that particular manoeuvre,” said White.

“As he was coming down the runway, he started to turn away instead of flying the crowd line and I said to my brother ‘he’s going down’.”

White said the aircraft was tail-on to the crowd and nearly upright when it flew into the ground.

“I didn’t hear any change in engine power and it was a very gentle descent into the ground,” he said. “The crowd was very upset but there was a huge round of applause when they announced he had survived.”

Kristie Eccleston said she thought the plane was close to the ground to be doing flips and twists, but thought the plane’s actions were part of the show right up until the crash.

“It didn’t nose dive into the ground, it just flew into ground,” she said. “Everyone was horrified. It was tough to see the expression on the children’s faces. That was definitely the worst.”

B.C. Ambulance and Cranberry Fire and Rescue personnel were on scene and removed Phipps from the wreckage.

The air show was cancelled following the crash and Riddy said the spectators were patient and understanding during the ordeal.

“The public was super,” she said. “There was nobody that went beyond the barriers, they all listened and were understanding when the show was cancelled.”

Sara Hof, Transport Canada spokeswoman said in an e-mail to Black Press that a Transport Canada inspector was on the scene to monitor the air show and will follow up with the pilot once he is able to speak to them.

The inspector will also meet with air show organizers to assess safety procedures.