February 22, 2016 - 9:00 PM
KAMLOOPS - It's a flight Cam Villeneuve won’t soon forget. After losing control of his Beaver Ultralight aircraft on Feb. 1, the 73-year-old’s crash became a story of survival — one that involves an intense crawl with cracked vertebrae and a lucky encounter with an off-duty firefighter.
Villeneuve started the flight at Blair Field in Knutsford, where he rents a space for his aircraft. He remembers the day as a clear one with a smooth flight up until the 45-minute mark, when he suddenly lost control of the aircraft.
"After 930 hours at the controls, I was already very experienced in emergency landings and cautionary landings in all kind of terrains. I had to fly to keep it stable enough to land in a field ahead, but at the last moment it stalled and landed flat down from 30 (to) 50 feet,” he says. "I’ve been landing in places like that all the time. At the last moment it just dropped right down."
He isn’t sure of the exact distance the aircraft fell, but felt the impact of the crash through his body as he watched the floor of the vehicle break away after colliding with the ground.
“It was such a shock. (There was) such a pain in my back. I stayed in the seat hollering… I was just hollering,” he says. "I sat there yelling to forget the pain and I thought, 'am I paralyzed?'"
A small shift of his legs and a wiggle of the toes told him otherwise, but Villeneuve knew he wouldn't be able to walk out of the crash site. He scoured the plane for a piece of debris he could use as a crutch.
After pinging his coordinates from the emergency satellite, he laid in the snow hoping his wife and the appropriate authorities would be notified in time.
"I knew there was a chance I'd be found out there when it was too late," he says.
The emergency beacon sent out from his SPOT satellite messenger device was his only hope at that point, he says, because he was out of cell service range.
"Laying on my back in the snow. I started to wonder, did the signal really go out?” he says. “I was thinking well maybe that could be it. I know you got to go at one point. I thought maybe the cold might get me and I might pass out."
Villeneuve says he turned to look at his surroundings and spotted a roadway nearby. But he’d have to find a way to get to it despite the excruciating pain in his back, which he now knows were three cracked vertebrae.
He decided to crawl.
"I crawled on my elbows and the tip of my toes. I turned on my back and pushed myself with my heels going down the slope (toward the road),” he says. "It was painful but I must have been full of adrenaline. I thought it was the best chance I had."
He made it to Jackson Road just as off-duty fireman Clay Smith was driving by. Villeneuve says he told Smith to drive to an area with cell coverage and call an ambulance but says before leaving, Smith wrapped him up in a blanket and placed him in the ditch.
"He’s a lucky guy. He was already getting pretty cold," Smith says, adding he is only one of two people who live in that area. "I don’t know if the paramedics would have seen him. No one else would have been going up or down that road."
He adds the rescue was a bit of a 'gong show'.
"I had my lab with me. Through all the chaos he snuck out of the truck and was licking his face," he says with a laugh.
Around the same time, Villeneuve’s wife received a call from the satellite company to notify her of her husband’s crash. Help was already on the way.
A helicopter and ambulance both arrived and Villeneuve was rushed to Royal Inland Hospital where the doctors discovered the injury to his back. A few days later doctors found a blood clot in his colon, caused by the trauma, which prevented him from eating for a number of days.
It’s been three weeks since the crash and Villeneuve has been on the mend at home. He says he thinks he knows why the plane went down. The day before his flight, he says the skis on his ultralight were adjusted for the wind, and he suspects one of the skis may have loosened mid-flight.
The damage is substantial, he says, but the retiree expects to either rebuild the aircraft or purchase a new one.
“The day after the accident one of my flying friends came in. He and another friend drove out there with two pickups, took the wings off (the plane), slid it down the slope (and) took it back to the hangar. That’s what friends are for,” he says with a laugh.
Up until the Feb. 1 crash, Villeneuve says he had a ‘hell of a good time’ flying around Knutsford and the greater Kamloops area. It wasn't the first time his plane went down, but Villeneuve refers to the other crashes as simply 'mishaps'.
“I will fly again,” he says.
To contact a reporter for this story, email Glynn Brothen at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-319-7494. To contact the editor, email email@example.com or call 250-718-2724.
— This story was edited at 7:11 a.m., Feb. 23, 2016, to correct a spelling error.
— This story was edited at 10:13 a.m., Feb. 23, 2016, to add quotes from firefighter Clay Smith.
News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2016