Monday, November 28, 2011

Pilot ejects from fighter plane moments before crash

The pilot of a Canadian fighter plane has made a miraculous escape from his jet, seconds before it smashed into the ground.

With his £20 million fighter plane hurtling towards the ground, Captain Brian Bews had little time to think. The 36-year-old pilot was forced to choose between battling to save the plane, or bailing to save his life. He chose the latter, launching himself out of the cockpit with the ejector seat and parachuting down to earth – miraculously landing unharmed, as his plane exploded in a mass of flames and black smoke.

These spectacular pictures show just how close Capt Bews, who has clocked 1,400 hours of flying time, came to death. Capt Bews was practising a daring low altitude pass called the high alpha pass – performed at very low-speed close to the ground – ahead of this weekend's air show at Lethbridge County Airport, 130 miles south of Calgary, when the plane's engine stalled.

Aviation officials in Canada were still investigating the causes of the crash, but Capt Bews was saved by his quick reactions and the plane's rocket powered ejector seat. "I noticed it start to bank a little bit off to one side, which I kind of thought was unusual," said photographer Ian Martens, who was watching the practice flights.

"I saw a couple of pops and all of a sudden this plane just banked and slowly dropped into the ground into this huge orange ball of fire." Ryan Griffiths, who also witnessed the crash, said: "You could tell something was going wrong. It was going way too slow. There was a sputtering sound and two puffs of smoke from the engines. "It started to nose dive, banked to the right, and the pilot ejected."

The pilot was taken to nearby Chinook Regional Hospital with minor injuries, and was still in hospital on Saturday. Capt Bews, who is based at the Bagotville, Quebec airfield, is not an inexperienced pilot. The airman, who was raised on a farm in Saskatchewan, has been flying planes since 1995, and accumulated 1,200 hours of flying the CF-18 Hornet. "I always loved aviation," said Capt Bews in a recent interview.

"We had airplanes fly right over our farm, so I always loved seeing them, but being from a small town, you know, you graduate from high school, you drive tractors and you become a farmer – that's just what I thought I had to do, and I didn't think there were any other options for me. "Once I got over that and realised that I'm going to do whatever I want to do, then it was that determination and work ethic that I learned on the farm that told me to do whatever it took to get it."

Capt Bews begun taking private flying lessons before attending Mount Royal College, to study for a diploma in aviation. "Flying was always in his blood," said his aunt, Leonora Bews.
"Some young kids get an idea of what they want to do and they don't think of anything but that."
He joined the Canadian air force in 1999, and was selected to join the elite demonstration team earlier this year.

Only a small group of pilots get to fly Hornets and even fewer are chosen to be demo pilots. The pilots are "hand-picked because they're the best of the best," said Lieutenant Colonel Midas Vogan, commanding officer of the 419 Moose Squadron based in Cold Lake, Alberta. Nick Buckenham, a veteran British aerobatics pilot and a judge at the World Aerobatics Championships, said: "Display aerobatics is an incredibly dangerous sport, where you deliberately fly incredibly close to the ground to astound the crowds.

"Obviously being this close to the ground poses huge risks, and the chances of escaping alive in such dangerous circumstances are actually incredibly slim. "At an altitude of just a few hundred feet a pilot has only a fraction of a second to make a decision to eject from his cockpit, especially at high speeds.

"Mr Bews' jet was travelling at very high speed, which makes the process of bailing out from an aeroplane even more difficult. "He has been incredibly lucky to escape alive."