Pilot on downed float plane identified as search continues for missing

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Authorities Wednesday were holding out little hope of finding survivors from Monday’s crash in Labrador of a float plane carrying a pilot and six passengers on a fishing trip.

Search and rescue teams recovered three bodies from Mistastin Lake on Tuesday, but four men remain missing, and an RCMP dive team was mobilizing Wednesday to reach the remote crash scene.

RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Jolene Garland said the chances anyone survived the crash are slim, but she stressed that response teams will do everything they can to find the four missing men. The crew of a Canadian Forces Hercules aircraft spotted the tail of the plane and other debris early Tuesday on the lake about 120 kilometres southwest of Nain, N.L.

“The likelihood that anybody has survived is perhaps low,” Garland said. “We’re going to make every effort to, of course, recover a person whether they are missing or found deceased, and make our best efforts to bring them out of there.”

The plane’s pilot has been identified by his employer as Gilles Morin, 61, of Quebec.

The identities of the passengers have not been made public, but the RCMP said they were all men — two fishing guides from Newfoundland and Labrador and four fishermen from the United States.

The RCMP took over search efforts from the Maritime Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre Wednesday. Some RCMP officers were on site, but Garland said the underwater recovery team was not expected to arrive at the remote wreck site before Thursday.

The divers will be backed by RCMP aircraft, investigative officers and a ground search and rescue team from Nain.

Jean Tremblay, president of Air Saguenay, the Quebec airline that owns the plane, confirmed Morin was piloting the de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver that crashed.

Tremblay described Morin as a kind man and an experienced, no-nonsense pilot who was treasured by friends and colleagues. “Everybody loved him,” Tremblay said Wednesday.

Morin wasn’t a pilot who took risks, Tremblay said, and given the good weather on Monday, he’s at a loss to explain what went wrong in the air.

“Gilles never closed doors in bad weather, he won’t take any chances. He wasn’t a cowboy,” Tremblay said. ”He was a very safe pilot, he was very appreciated from all his colleagues.”

Tremblay said he does not know who is missing and who has been confirmed dead, but he is not optimistic any survivors will be found. The wreckage was spotted in the water approximately one kilometre from the shore.

Maj. Mark Gough with Maritime Forces Atlantic, which co-ordinated the rescue effort until Tuesday night, said any survivor would have had to swim a significant distance to reach land.

Garland said divers will begin their underwater search from the known location of the wreck and expand out from there.

The lake’s remote location has been a major factor delaying their arrival. Garland described Mistastin Lake as a crater “literally in the middle of nowhere,” only accessible by aircraft.

Work had begun to gather and transport the necessary equipment, including scuba gear and underwater video cameras and a tool to penetrate the plane if needed.

Morin has been an employee of Air Saguenay since 2011 and according to Tremblay, he has 20,000 hours of flying experience.

Tremblay said the aircraft had been inspected this spring and was far from being due for another inspection.

The plane had left Three Rivers Lodge on Crossroads Lake, east of Schefferville, Que., Monday morning for a fishing camp on Mistastin Lake, but it did not return as planned that evening. The RCMP said it is not known whether the plane crashed en route to the camp or during its return.

Robin Reeve, managing partner of the Three Rivers Lodge, declined comment on Wednesday, saying he was waiting for more information. “We are making no statements at this point, because the information is not clear or anywhere close to complete,” he said in a brief phone interview.

The lodge’s website describes it as a “wilderness fly-fishing camp located in the Labrador bush” where guests are flown out to remote fishing spots as part of a weeklong package.

According to an online list of TSB reports, the crash is the fourth recorded incident involving an Air Saguenay-owned plane.

In July 2010, a DHC-2 Beaver crashed into a mountain near Lake Peribonka, Que. in poor weather, killing four of the six people aboard.

In August 2015, another DHC-2 Beaver struck a mountainside near Les Bergeronnes, Que., not long after taking off from Long Lake near Tadoussac, killing all seven people on board.

Last July, another DHC-2 Beaver was preparing to take off from Jules Lake with a pilot and three passengers when the pilot aborted takeoff. The plane struck trees, damaging, the aircraft, but no one was injured.

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