With the Sea to Sky still reeling from a tragic aircraft collision near Nairn Falls that left four dead on Saturday (June 29), Pemberton is mourning the loss of one of its community pillars, pilot Rudy Rozsypalek.
Escaping communist Czechoslovakia, Rozsypalek arrived in Canada in 1989 before moving to Pemberton with his wife, Tracey, four years later. A pilot since the age of 15, Rozsypalek had managed to scrape together enough money to get his new business, the Pemberton Soaring Centre, up and running with his friend, Peter Kim, the same year.
Nigel Protter, a friend and student of Rozsypalek's for 20 years, remembers heading to the Pemberton Airport on the business's first day of operations.
"They had this little tent in the middle of the airport in Pemberton, and they put up a sign on the very first day and I just had to go," he said. "I was their very first customer and it was just so amazing. I went on to become his tow pilot and glider pilot for him."
Rozsypalek would eventually instruct countless young flyers over the years, many of whom have gone onto become commercial pilots.
"The one thing they all have that most other commercial pilots don't have, is they know how to fly, which is not the same as being just a pilot. They actually know how to fly that airplane and feel it in their body," Protter said. "Those of us who flew with him a lot will remember his stern discipline, but always for the best of reasons. Flying is a joy and a privilege, but it's also serious business, and Rudy, he was our mentor, it's that simple."
Rozsypalek was an active member of the community, and a popular hockey coach in Whistler for many years. His impact was felt often in Mayor Jordan Sturdy's office, who remembered him as a tireless advocate of the town's airport.
"Through the difficulties, through the floods, season after season, Rudy and Tracey were there with Pemberton Soaring to have a continuous presence in the aviation world. I don't really think that can be understated. Other people and entities had come and gone, but Rudy was always there," he said. "He really was the face of the Pemberton Airport in some respects, and certainly of the aerosport industry in the Pemberton Valley. He brought it to a global level."
Rozsypalek was touring with 21-year-old Indian national Mohnish Gagan Paul in a powered glider, confirmed in an email from the victim's relative, when it collided with a Cessna 150 airplane carrying a man, woman and dog at around 12:20 p.m. The Times of India reported that Paul was an adventure sports enthusiast who was vacationing in Canada with his family.
The names of the victims from the single-engine airplane have not been released, but other media have identified the pair as Terrence Gale and wife Rita. RCMP said the man and woman were from 100 Mile House. The plane was traveling to Nanaimo with a planned stop in Lillooet for fuel, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB).
Investigators from TSB were onsite over the weekend to interview witnesses and gather wreckage for examination. They also retrieved the glider's GPS.
A cause for the crash has not been determined and it could be months before answers are found.
Campers at Nairn Falls reported significant amounts of debris falling from the sky following the accident. Sgt. Rob Knapton with Whistler RCMP said in a release that he believes the campsite was at capacity at the time of the incident, with over 90 units filled. Pemberton's mayor recognized the immense tragedy, but was thankful no one on the ground was injured.
"Clearly it's a tragedy for all involved, as well as for bystanders and witnesses, because I think a lot of people were affected by this whether they knew Rudy or not," he said. "I suppose we have to be, to some degree, grateful that people on the ground were not injured."
German tourist Frank Nasner was camping in the provincial park and said he was the second to arrive at one of the crash sites.
"The first thing we heard was a loud bang and then you could hear an aircraft engine. We saw a plane that was slithering right and left just over the tree line, After that we heard another loud bang and looking into the sky you could see a lot debris falling down. Debris was all around the place and people were screaming. Some were shouting 'There's the airplane! There's the airplane!'" he said. "We went to the crash site and saw the burning cockpit. We tried to put it out but there was no chance. They got some other fire fighting equipment and another fire extinguisher and then the fire department arrived. In this cockpit, there were two dead bodies."
Emergency personnel attended the scene, with Pemberton firefighters putting out the flames from both aircraft. The site was monitored overnight as a precautionary measure due to the risk of wildfire.