Passengers, pilots safe but ‘shaken up’ after lightning strikes Victoria-bound helicopter

Passengers, pilots safe but 'shaken up' after lightning strikes Victoria-bound helicopter

People inside a 12-passenger Helijet helicopter were left stunned after the aircraft, en route to Victoria, was struck by lightning mid-flight.

No one was injured Tuesday morning, but the helicopter was damaged and needs repairs, according to Helijet’s president and CEO Daniel Sitnam.

“The passengers were a little shaken up, there’s no doubt about it,” said Sitnam in an interview. “They knew something had happened.”

He says the helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76C++, departed downtown Vancouver for Vancouver Island at 9:11 a.m. on Oct. 24.

Fourteen people in total, including 12 passengers and two pilots, were on board.

“About 20 minutes later, at about 4,000 feet (1,200 metres) above sea level, on a typical flight path that we take, the crew noted and reported that they heard a very loud bang and simultaneously a white, bright light,” said Sitnam.

‘Freak lightning strike’

The whole cockpit, including the pilots’ instrumentation, went black, in what the company president is calling a “one-off or freak lightning strike situation.”

Sitnam says the pilots followed procedures, advised the Victoria helipad control tower and declared a “Pan-Pan,” which means “possible assistance needed.” He says this “gives you priority over other radio communications from other aircraft.”

The helicopter landed at Ogden Point around 9:45 a.m. Everyone on board, the passengers and pilots, was safely deplaned and medically cleared.

Then crews noticed parts of the helicopter had been torn off and were missing.

“The pilots walked around the aircraft, and to their surprise, not knowing this during flight, two of the four tail rotors were not on the aircraft,” said Sitnam.

“It’s outstanding in their ability to bring the aircraft safety to the ground.”

According to Transport Canada, “the purpose of the pedal-controlled tail rotor is to counteract the torque effect of the main rotor, to control the heading of the helicopter during hovering flight, and to initiate turns while in the hover.”

Environment Canada had issued weather warnings and statements for parts of B.C., including Vancouver Island, saying heavy rain and strong wind were forecast.

“There were no weather alerts relative to lightning. This was the only lightning strike reported,” said Sitnam.

“The weather reporting that we checked had no indication there was lightning in the area that we were flying.”

Environment Canada meteorologist Armel Castellan said aviation forecasts the agency issued for Tuesday did in fact warn of the potential for thunderstorm activity across BC’s south coast.

Castellan also said the strike was “stronger than your average strike,” and that it was not only the only lightning strike recorded by sensors Tuesday morning.

“We did see a lightning strike in the south Gulf Islands, near Pender Island,” he told CHEK News. “It was a strong lightning flash because we can measure that through the Canadian Lightning Detection Network.”

The Transportation Safety Board is aware of the incident and is investigating.

Sitnam says the helicopter will be held in Victoria for examination before it’s towed to Helijet’s facility on the B.C. mainland for repairs.

“Everybody’s safe and sound. We’ll learn from it, we’ll get the aircraft fixed up, and we’ll get it back in the air,” he added.

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Ethan MorneauEthan Morneau

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