Within 10 minutes of takeoff on a warm September evening in 2005, Robert Honour was fighting to steady his helicopter as it plummeted from the sky, a long trail of grey-black smoke spewing behind it.
Battling with his disabled machine, Mr. Honour appeared to aim for a hayfield to avoid landing on people below in a house and barn near Duncan, B.C. But despite the 51-year-old pilot's best efforts, the helicopter crashed in "an explosion and fireball," killing him and his 29-year-old passenger, Les Chadwick.
Last week, the B.C. Supreme Court was to examine whether a federal regulatory agency should be held responsible for the deaths. In a civil suit brought by Mr. Honour's widow and his three children, Transport Canada was accused of breaking its own rules by licensing a helicopter service company "with an extensive history of unsafe practises."
But at the last minute, the agency avoided potentially embarrassing questions about its air safety operations, agreeing to a confidential out-of-court settlement just before the trial started. As is usual in such cases, how much Ottawa paid out to the Honour family was not disclosed and Transport Canada admitted no liability.
Art Comeault, the owner of the service company, did not settle out of court, but after a brief two-day hearing in Vancouver last week, the judge found him liable and ordered him to pay $645,000 in damages.
Had the suit gone ahead, it would have been a rare test of how much accountability can be demanded of government agencies, as well as raising issues about the oversight of air transportation safety in Canada.
"I expected this thing would be shut down pretty quickly," said Gerard Chouest, a Toronto lawyer who specializes in aviation law and is not connected with the case. "It's not in Transport Canada's best interest to have this issue discussed any more than necessary. They don't want to call attention to the fact that they have some vulnerabilities."
Settling lawsuits has been a pattern at Transport Canada. An examination by The Globe and Mail of the federal Public Accounts over the past decade uncovered at least nine "payments of claims" by Transport Canada to individuals as a result of aircraft accidents, totalling close to $1.7-million.
Transport Canada's role in each accident was kept confidential.
In the case of the fatal copter crash in 2005, however, a long paper trail of inspection reports by the Transportation Safety Board brings up questions that Ottawa might not have wanted to air in court - particularly, how it oversees the roughly 900 aeronautic companies across the country licensed to repair and maintain aircraft.
The official TSB report on the Duncan crash determined a fuel-pump failure led to loss of engine power and a fire in Mr. Honour's helicopter. The TSB report also stated that "maintenance actions to correct serious … fuel pump defects were not completed" by Mr. Comeault and his company, A & L Aircraft.
"The helicopter was not serviced or maintained in accordance with existing regulations," concluded the TSB investigators, who caution in all their reports that their findings are not meant to "assign fault … or criminal liability."
"They're a bunch of jerks," said Mr. Comeault, a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer since 1985, reached by phone at his home in Chilliwack. "They make these stupid statements and then they walk away. They don't prove it.
"That helicopter was a good helicopter," he said, blaming pilot error for the crash. "They all have problems. It's a mechanical machine, you can't tell when it's going to have a problem or not."
The TSB report suggested that Mr. Honour's helicopter had "sustained substantial damage" after a crash in the United States in 1979 - like the 2005 incident, after losing engine power - and then suffered more damage in a rollover accident in Canada in 1997. But according to the TSB investigation report, "there is no record of any accident in the … logbooks," as required by the Canadian Aviation Regulations.
Investigators also reported that there had been no inspection of the company by Transport Canada for six years, from 1999 until 2005 - contrary to the department's own rules that require reviews every one to three years.
"We started looking at the oversight [by Transport Canada]and found there was weakness in the level of inspection," said Bill Yearwood, Pacific regional manager for the TSB.
It was a failure, the safety board concluded, "resulting in a missed opportunity to learn that maintenance had not been performed" on the helicopter that doomed Mr. Honour and his passenger.
Mr. Comeault called that finding "baloney" and said he "always got along with Transport Canada."
According to court filings not contested by the government, in September of 1997 Mr. Comeault - then working as the designated engineer for a firm called Galaxie Helicopters - pleaded guilty under the Aeronautics Act to "making false entries" in a log, helping to make a helicopter, rebuilt after it had been destroyed by a fire, look as if it had suffered "only minor damage."
In 1999, Mr. Comeault set up his own aircraft maintenance company and Transport Canada approved him as the "person responsible for maintenance" - despite his 1997 guilty plea for falsifying records. Government regulations prohibit anyone with a conviction under the Aeronautics Act from assuming that role.
"Transport Canada did not have the discretion to approve Mr. Comeault … given his criminal conviction," Mr. Justice Elliott Meyers of the B.C. Supreme Court stated in a pretrial ruling.
Mr. Yearwood of the TSB said the circumstances of the Duncan crash call for a close look at Transport Canada's record. But with the lawsuit settled, it's not clear how such an examination might happen.
"There has to be some level of trust that people are doing their job," he said. "We want the weaknesses in the system that have not been fixed to be drawn into the public light."
Special to The Globe and Mail
By the numbers
492 Helicopter accidents recorded by Transport Canada in the past decade
129 People killed in those accidents
$1.7-million Total paid out by Transport Canada since 2000 to settle nine previous "payments of claims" for aircraft accidents since 2000, according to an examination of public accounts.