Firefighters check the wreckage of a small plane that crashed shortly after takeoff from the Jean-Lesage International Airport in Quebec City, Wed., June 23, 2010. Seven people were registered on the flight bound for Sept-Iles, Que.

MONTREAL—“We are not able to climb.”  They are the eerily calm last words of the pilot of a small plane that crashed early Wednesday morning just moments after takeoff from Quebec City’s airport, killing seven.  Two crew members and five passengers were aboard the Beechcraft King Air twin-turboprop belonging to Aéropro Group, authorities confirmed.

The plane went down in a rural area about two kilometres north of the end of the runway at Jean Lesage Airport.  The pilot radioed the tower that the plane’s right engine had failed and he was going to try to head back to the airport. He asked for emergency services to respond.  “Quebec tower, Aéropro 201 (here), we have a right engine problem, we’re going to return for landing,” the pilot told the tower.

“Roger,” the controller responded, and asked if the pilot needed emergency services.  “Affirmative, we are unable to climb,” the pilot answered.  Then, another voice comes onto the control tower recording: “There was a fireball only three knots from the airport. I believe it’s a King Air from Aéropro that just crashed.”  The plane crashed and came to rest about 90 metres from the first point of impact in a stand of trees near the backyard of a house.

Verdant farm fields surround the charred scene of carnage: a fuselage that all but disintegrated, with only the tail recognizable.  “All you have (is) ashes and a piece of the tail of the airplane. That’s about it,” said an investigator with the Transportation Safety Board, which arrived on scene Wednesday afternoon.

One witness told reporters in Quebec City he heard two explosions. “When I heard the first, I don’t think it had crashed yet,” Denis Guay told LCN. “Then I heard another explosion and I looked west and I saw a really big fire in the yard. We called 911.” Maxime Marois, who lives in the residence beside the crash site and is the son of former Nordiques player Mario Marois, said he heard a “huge explosion and saw a giant ball of fire.”

“We weren’t able to help because we didn’t have any equipment,” he added.  Flight 201’s destinations were Sept-Îles and Natashquan, Quebec. The victims include Normand Tremblay, 50, an employee of Chicoutimi construction firm Cegerco, as well as two architects and two federal government workers, whose names have not yet been revealed.

The pilot is believed to be Dominique Lefebvre, who has been with Aéropro for about a year. The co-pilot has not been identified.   A representative of Aéropro, based at the Quebec City airport, offered his condolences for the victims.  Jacques Paillard, vice president of operations, said he would wait for the Transportation Safety Board to do its investigation before speculating as to the cause of the accident.

However, he mentioned that if one engine does down, the Beech Air’s other engine should be able to keep the plane in the air.  Former pilot and civil aviation expert Yvan Miville-Des Chênes agreed. “If he’s unable to climb any further … one thing pops out: if the right engine is out, the left must only be partially operating and not delivering enough power.”

Des Chênes says it appears that the plane stalled, leaving the pilot utterly helpless, because if one engine had been working, he could have landed in the wide open field.

“He could have landed there and maybe caused only a few minor injuries,” Des Chênes explained. “So it indicates the plane was not able to fly anymore.”  There is no black box on the aircraft.  The plane went through a maintenance checkup around 10 days ago, Paillard said, and “nothing major” was found.  “For the moment, it’s difficult to explain,” he offered.

Aéropro Group, in business since 1988, provides business charters and tourist flights in Quebec. According to its web site, it also offers aircraft maintenance, Medevac, forest fire detection and wildlife inventory services.  It also has a flight school, the Centre de formation aéronautique de Québec.

Just last month, on May 19, a Cessna 172 belonging to Sasair, which is affiliated with the flight school, crashed in l’Ile-aux-Grues, Que. Four people died, including the young pilot who was close to obtaining the required flying hours to obtain her commercial licence.

Lefebvre happened to be that student’s instructor. At the time of the accident he emphasized the planes are inspected regularly. “From a mechanical point of view, nothing would point to there having been a risk,” he said.

That crash is still under investigation.

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