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4 Wing pilots eject from plane before explosion

Only hours after escaping a potentially catastrophic incident high in the skies over Cold Lake Friday morning, Lt.-Col. Lee Vogan had only one wish. "I want to get back to work ...
From left: Capt. Jens Lundgreen-Nielsen, Col. David Wheeler, commander of 4 Wing Cold Lake and Lt.-Col Lee Vogan stand in front of a CT-155 Hawk fighter jet at 419 Squadron
From left: Capt. Jens Lundgreen-Nielsen, Col. David Wheeler, commander of 4 Wing Cold Lake and Lt.-Col Lee Vogan stand in front of a CT-155 Hawk fighter jet at 419 Squadron headquarters last Friday.

Only hours after escaping a potentially catastrophic incident high in the skies over Cold Lake Friday morning, Lt.-Col. Lee Vogan had only one wish.

"I want to get back to work ... I can't wait to get up there again," said Vogan, who along with training instructor partner Jens Lundgreen-Nielsen were forced to eject from their CT-155 Hawk fighter jet minutes before the aircraft exploded into a fireball and landed in a marsh 4.4 kilometres south of 4 Wing Cold Lake's landing strip just before noon on Friday.

"This is what I'm trained to do. I'm hoping to be back to work on Monday."

Vogan and Lundgreen-Nielsen, who is from Denmark but has been training fighter pilots at 4 Wing for more than four years, were forced to eject from their aircraft after Lundgreen-Nielsen heard "a loud bang" in the engine compartment 20 minutes into a training run Friday morning.

Vogan was the lead pilot, Lundgreen-Nielsen was in the back seat of the CT-155, and student pilot Capt. Brian Bowen was flying alongside them in another CT-155 during a training run when Lundgreen-Nielsen detected problems in the engine compartment.

Once Vogan and Lundgreen-Nielsen realized the engine had suffered serious damage, their "training immediately kicked in" and realized they would have to make plans to eject and try and ditch the plane in a landing area away from any residential area if at all possible, said Vogan.

The plane exploded into a fireball after Vogan and Lundgreen-Nielsen had ejected and landed in a muskeg field about 300 metres from the nearest home just over two miles south of the landing strip at 4 Wing, said Vogan.

Just over five hours after the incident, Vogan and Lundgreen-Nielsen, along with 4 Wing commander Col. David Wheeler, met with a large contingent of media at 419 Squadron headquarters to explain exactly what happened.

They explained the vigorous and intense training fighter pilots undergo at 4 Wing and how that training played a significant role in ensuring both pilots were able to eject safely and ensure the fighter aircraft would come to rest without causing significant damage to human life or property.

"We're very serious about our training ... We train intensively for scenarios just like this over and over again," said Vogan.

A team of experts from 4 Wing and national headquarters in Ottawa will be conducting an extensive review to piece together exactly what happened and determine the cause of the engine malfunction and crash, said Wheeler.

Vogan said he and Lundgreen-Nielsen tried to steer the plane back to base, but quickly realized "it was quite apparent we weren't going to make it" and knew they would have to prepare to eject.

Their training provides a series of checklists to follow and one of their most important roles was to try and ensure the plane would crash in an area where no one would get hurt, said Vogan.

Because of the height and speed involved and the parachutes they use, the landing after ejection was harsh and he felt "a little roughed up," but didn't suffer any kind of significant injury, nor did Lundgreen-Nielsen.

Both men were transported to hospital and given thorough examinations by physicians before being allowed to return to base and eventually debrief with their bosses before talking to media.

When asked if he was ever "afraid" during the entire incident, Vogan said "fear has no place in this business" and he was too focused on training protocol to worry about what might happen once engine trouble was identified.

"We were both calm, cool and collected," he said. "It was very calculated and controlled.

"The training we receive is second to none ... and it certainly reinforces that the training we receive and the equipment we use in the Canadian military is second to none."

Vogan said incidents like this are extremely rare and he will not have any hesitation to return to flying as quickly as possible.

Lundgreen-Nielsen agreed the extensive training he has received throughout his career and at 4 Wing allowed him to remain calm and cool under very trying circumstances.

"I'm very happy with the training we receive because you never really know how you're going to react in a situation like this, despite the training," he said.

When he and Vogan landed in the marsh after ejecting from the plane, there were numerous neighbours who offered to lend cellphones, call 911 and even offer food and drink, he said.

A group of CF-18 aircraft circled the area to ensure its safety after the crash and everything was handled very professionally and all protocols were followed to perfection, he said.

Lundgreen-Nielsen, who has 14 years of flying experience in the military, said he too hopes to get back to flying and training "as soon as possible."

When he phoned family members and friends in Denmark to confirm everything was OK, one colleague asked him what his plans were for the weekend.

"I told him I feel like going flying," said Lundgreen-Nielsen smiling.

Wheeler said both pilots were outstanding in handling such a dangerous situation with such professional calmness.

Every fighter aircraft pilot receives years of training to handle a situation just like this and Vogan and Lundgreen-Nielsen followed every protocol to perfection, he said.

"We train for all types of situations that could take place, including what happened here today," he said. "They followed procedures perfectly."

This incident follows the crash of a CF-18 Hornet in a field 13 km northwest of 4 Wing last Nov. 17. In that incident, Darren Blakie, a pilot from 409 Tactical Squadron, successfully ejected from the aircraft.

When asked if he was concerned about two incidents taking place eight months apart, Wheeler said it's unfair to mention both incidents in the same sentence as they involved different aircrafts under much different scenarios.

"Sometimes we go years without an accident and sometimes you get a rash of them," he said.

The reality is there are very few incidents involving Canadian military jets during training, he said.

Wheeler said emergency crews reacted quickly and did a good job ensuring the fire from the jet was put out quickly, the area was cordoned off and both pilots were given immediate medical attention and taken to hospital.

4 Wing's 419 Squadron provides training to not only Canadian fighter pilots, but also members of NATO, which is how Lundgreen-Nielsen ended up in Alberta as a trainer, Wheeler explained.

Wheeler said the CT-155 Hawk aircraft is built by Canada's Bombardier Inc. He didn't know the pricetag, except "it was in the millions."

There are seven CT-155 aircrafts in use at 4 Wing and they have proven to be a versatile, excellent aircraft for training fighter pilots, he said.