Ian Martens' account of the CF-18 Hornet crash in Lethbridge
The day started with an assignment to head out to the airport to get some photos to advance the air show which began the next day. Typically a day or two before the show media get to go up with one or two of the acts for a ride-along and itís always a great opportunity to jump into some neat old plane and fly around the area. Upon arriving at the airport I was informed that a media member had had to back out of a scheduled tandem jump with the Canadian Forces Skyhawks skydiving team. I was offered his spot and enthusiastically agreed to go. The jump was an absolutely incredible experience.
That was supposed to be the highlight of the day.
Following the jump I lingered on the tarmac, getting my bearings back, letting the adrenaline stop flowing and my stomach stop churning. I had strapped a small HD video camera to my wrist for the jump, and though I had considered using a frame grab as a still image, I wasnít confident that I had what I needed for the next dayís paper. I made my way back to my car to drop off some things before heading back towards the terminal to photograph some of the other practice flights that had already begun.
The CF-18 was already up and had made a few passes as I was walking through the parking lot. As it came into sight from behind a large hanger I saw that it was performing a maneuver known as the high alpha pass - where the plane is angled nose up at about 45 degrees, traveling forward very slowly with the throttle going hard to keep it in its low altitude path. Having seen it done before and knowing it is a cool visual, I tracked it through the viewfinder of my D300 as it passed right in front of me.
It had barely passed when I noticed a slight dip in the angle of the wings which I remember thinking right away was a bit strange. A fraction of a second later I saw a number of pops from within the plane, which after the fact I believe what I was seeing was the ejection seat system firing. I donít really remember seeing the pilot at all after that as my full focus was on the aircraft while it continued its uncontrolled bank and made what seemed like a slow drop through the air and into the ground where it exploded into a giant dome of orange flame.
It was only when I took my eye from the camera after the peak of the flames that, to my great relief, I saw the pilotís parachute land safely away from the burning wreckage. I donít remember seeing the pilot through my viewfinder even though he is in many of the frames of the sequence - I was just so focused on what was happening with that aircraft.
Up until that point I had remained strangely calm as everything seem to be happening like a dream in those few short seconds. But it was then that the adrenaline started to flow (for the second time that day). I ran to the fence and took a few shots of the wreckage as it continued to burn before I headed through the hanger that I had just left after my skydive where I knew I could get a clear line of sight.
On my way through the building I called my editor with a very abrupt message so he could send other reporters to start working on the story. Though I knew the best photos were already made, I stuck around at the airport for a couple more hours, photographing officials tending to the pilot and emergency vehicles arriving and working on scene, before heading back to the office to file my photos.
What started out to already be a memorable day turned out to likely be one of the most unforgettable moments of my entire career.