Three men are lucky to be alive after their plane crashed while taking off from a remote fishing camp about 100 nautical miles west of Rankin Inlet this past month.
The Cessna 180 was piloted by longtime Rankin Inlet resident Shawn Maley, now of Yellowknife, with Tommy Sharp and Barney Tootoo of Rankin also onboard.
Sharp co-owns the camp on Kamilukuak Lake with his sister, Pelagie.
Maley, 54, who’s been flying for about 20 years, said he dropped Tootoo and Sharp off on Aug. 25 to close the camp for the season, and flew back to pick them up the following day.
He said there was nothing unusual about the conditions as he prepared to take off from the lake.
“I’ve flown in and out of there for years and years and, on Aug. 26, the weather was good, with light wind out of the west and sunny, blue skies,” said Maley.
“My throttle had been a little stiff for a couple of weeks leading up to the crash, but I don’t know if that had anything to do with what happened.
“It was as routine as routine can be, I guess, as we were ready to take off.”
Maley said it is a tight fit taking off from Kamilukuak Lake with a float plane, because you have a point of ‘go, or no-go’ while taking off.
“Basically, while taking off, you pick a point on a lake and, if you’re not where you need to be in terms of being on the step and the airplane wanting to fly when you reach it, then you shut right down.
“But the issue there is what happens after that because there’s not a lot of lake, so, once you’ve committed to heading in that direction, you’re all in.
“We got to our spot on step and everything was good, so I pulled the flaps and we popped off the water and were in our climb out. Normal procedure from there is to lower your flaps, keep pressure on the plane’s nose so you’re building speed, and climb out.
“It all happened pretty quick, but, from my recollection of it, after both flaps popped off and I started the climb-out procedure, the engine went to idle and there was rising terrain ahead of us.”
Maley immediately realized they were going down, warned his passengers and reacted quickly to every pilot’s worst nightmare: an unavoidable crash.
Estimating he had only seconds to spare, Maley pulled the flaps and held the nose off.
“We cleared the shoreline, touched the tundra once and hit a rock above the shoreline,” he said. “Then the right float dug into the tundra and we did a long, slow, upside-down cartwheel and landed hanging in our seat belts upside down.”
“From the time we were in the air to being upside down on the ground was just seconds, so I don’t think Tommy (Sharp) and Barney (Tootoo) had time to even comprehend what was happening.”
Maley said Sharp was out the door first, because he was worried about fire, Tootoo was second and he was last.
“It all happened so fast, it’s just a blur,” he said. “We’re going down; I have to make sure we get over those rocks because tundra is a lot more forgiving than rocks; the windshield is coming in on me; I’m hanging upside down in my seat belt; it’s over and we’re all alive.”
Maley said once he was outside and looking at the wreckage, all he could think was how incredible it was none of them were seriously hurt.
Normally, he said, something like that doesn’t end well.
“Both Tommy and I had an In-Reach with us, which allows you to text via satellite,” he said, “so I sent a text to my son right away because I knew the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre was receiving the signal from the plane’s emergency locator transmitter.”
“Once everyone knew we crashed, but were all OK, we walked back to the cabin and I grabbed a four-wheeler to go back and pick up as much of our personal stuff as I could, because we didn’t know how long we were going to be there.
As luck would have it, Maley said the Rankin Inlet RCMP and search-and-rescue team were able to get the Agnico Eagle helicopter to come pick them up and they were on their way back to Rankin within two hours of the crash.
“When it was all over – looking at the plane crashed into the tundra – we were all pretty happy to be sitting there joking about it,” he said, “and, every day since it happened, I’ve thought about what I could have done differently to avoid the crash, and that it probably should have been the end for all three of us.”