Little room for error when towing banners by plane, ex-pilot says after Montreal crash

An ex-professional pilot says that while it's too soon to say what caused a plane pulling a marriage proposal banner to crash near Old Montreal over the weekend, there's little room for error when towing banners by air.

Julien Placa, who still flies recreationally, said Monday in an interview from Montreal most crashes are due to a "combination of factors," adding that there's rarely one single reason why a plane goes down.

He says towing banners means engines have to work harder to maintain minimum speeds, putting them at risk of stalling, and he says because they fly low, there is little time to react if things go wrong.

While he believes towing banners is safe under the right conditions, he says factors such as air humidity, the plane's weight, low cloud cover and human error can all cause a plane to get into trouble.

A passenger died and the pilot was seriously injured in Saturday's crash, which occurred around 6 p.m. near Old Montreal and at the site of a busy music festival.

The pilot, Gian Piero Ciambella, is known as being very experienced, and runs his own advertising company.

The plane left the small St-Mathieu-de-Laprairie Airport, south of Montreal, at 5:46 Saturday afternoon. A mayday call came in some 15 after takeoff before the signal went dead.

The Transportation Safety Board said Monday the plane's engines are being sent to a lab in Ottawa for analysis, adding that it's still too soon to determine what caused the crash.

“We could be looking at the engine, at the propeller at the aircraft control, it can be anything -- fuel contamination,” said Isabelle Langevin of the Transportation Safety Board.

The banner likely fell into the river as the plane came down over a small strip of land.

Emergency landings in a city are also very challenging, said former pilot Marc-Antoine Plourde

“In a pilot's mind, there are more challenges. There are less places to land in a city,” he said. “If you stall, you're coming straight down. You don't get to choose where you land in that particular case.”

The same Cessna had an emergency landing in 2006 – right in the middle of Montreal’s Park Avenue.

The TSB investigation said that landing was due to engine failure and praised the pilot for extraordinary manoeuvres to land safely.

Ciambella was at the controls then too.

“What they did in 2006 on Park Avenue is they had suitable time to identify a landing spot,” explained aviation expert John Gradek. “In this case there wasn't that much time and it was losing power, losing altitude.”

This model of airplane is not required to have a black box.

TSB investigators are hoping to speak to Ciambella as he recovers.

- This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 4, 2021. With a report from CTV News Montreal's Kelly Greig

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