Walking into an old-growth pine forest by Beam Station Road, Rod Wheeler arrives at a clearing where young trees are beginning to show. His dog, Shep, barrels through the bushes ahead.
“This is the place where I lost my son. And where six other families lost their loved ones,” Rod says, pointing to the noticeable gap in the woods.
A bed of moss outlines where Skylink Flight 070 crashed into this forest near the Northwest Regional Airport 30 years ago. The crash killed all five passengers and two crew members, including Rod’s 19-year old son, Craig. He was the youngest passenger on the plane.
New growth stands in contrast to the old pine trees next to the road, where repairs of the power lines are still visible following the crash. The trunk of a tree blackened from the fire serves as a stark reminder of the tragedy.
“It hit right on the edge of the road, going 180-miles an hour,” Rod says. “You can see the hole if you look for the sky. If we moved 30 feet over, you’re looking at trees. But here, it’s open.”
Skylink Flight 070 left from Vancouver to Terrace at 6:51 a.m. and was scheduled to arrive by 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 26, 1989. Upon their descent, the crew did not have visual confirmation of the end of the runway, which was hidden by dense cloud and fog.
Instead of circling back to a safe altitude to try again, the captain continued to descend at an airspeed of 140 knots, following the same path as that of a private Learjet which had landed minutes earlier, according to an incident report from the Transportation Safety Board.
The landing gear was down as the aircraft made its approach. Seconds later, the landing gear and flaps were brought back up, and the aircraft began to accelerate, climbing at approximately 1,200 feet per minute.
The aircraft quickly stalled and the aircraft descended at 3,000 feet per minute, striking trees on the west side of the runway just inside the airport perimeter, tearing off half of the right-wing into pieces.
“It went inverted, did a 180 [degree flip] and continued screaming through here at 165 knots upside down,” Rod says, who is a pilot himself.
At 8:26 a.m., a second and final impact with the ground occurred 800 feet from the initial tree strike when the plane exploded into flames.
After missing the initial approach, the report says the aircraft was flown into the ground in a manner consistent with crew disorientation.
Inadequate company operating procedures, bad weather, and the inadequate definition of the visual references required for a circling approach contributed to the crash, the accident report reads. There were no findings of mechanical or structural failure.
Following the crash, there was an inquiry from the Canadian Aviation Safety Board and Skyline Airlines, owned by Rafael Zur, was shut down immediately by the Department of Transportation.
For these last 30 years, Rod makes an annual trip to Terrace from his home in Atlin, B.C. to pay respects to his son. He visits the site where Craig died at exactly 8:26 a.m. each Sept. 26.
He remembers the day when he was told what had happened. Rod was in Vancouver making a presentation to a broker and one of his clients, when out of the corner of his eye, he sees an RCMP officer standing in the doorway.
“We went in the boardroom, he closed the door. The whole conversation was this simple. ‘Was your son on a flight to Terrace this morning?’ I said, ‘Yeah, why?’ He said, ‘That plane has crashed at the Terrace airport and there are no survivors.’”
Rod had a friend line up a Canada Learjet for him and he flew to Terrace within hours of the crash. Soon after arriving, the coroner called him to identify his son. Some of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.
One of the first things he asked Rod was, ‘What brand of cigarettes did your son smoke?’
“He doesn’t smoke,” Rod replied. The coroner then asked what Craig was wearing.
“A black leather jacket with grey inserts. He says, ‘There was a package of Du Maurier cigarettes in the pocket.’ I never knew that about him, and we were just like this,” he says, crossing his fingers.
“We were living in the same house, we were building a business together. We were going to build a fly shop because we’re both fly fishermen. Then, boom.”
Rod and Craig would often spend time together, flying helicopters and aircraft on fishing trips. On one occasion, Rod took Craig out of school at Langley Secondary for an “appointment.”Craig showed up, they signed him out, and got into a wheel-equipped floatplane parked on a runway across the street from the school.
They took off right over the high school to the chagrin of Craig’s classmates, whose small faces they could see pressed against the glass.
“There goes Craig and his old man!” Rod laughs. “He was open, an honest and really good looking kid. Most valuable player on the rugby team, every girl in high school was after him. He was having a ball.”
Rod estimates around 400 people came to Craig’s funeral to say goodbye.
Usually, Rod has the site of the crash marked with a small jade inukshuk facing the road, leaning against an old pine tree. It is the only memorial placed on the site.
“How else would you know that he was here?” Rod says. Traditionally, inukshuks are used by the Inuit to mark sacred places.
This year though, it’s missing from its usual spot beneath the heavy branches. With the new growth, finding the site was more difficult this year.
But what’s more important for Rod is that he was here to pay respects where his son spent his last moments. It’s a way for him to be together with Craig.
“It doesn’t matter that [the inukshuk] is gone. I’m not upset about that,” Rod says. Reflecting on memories earlier, he said, “It was more important that we were together. He was a great kid. He was loved by everybody.”