Pilot healing after air show crash

Bill Phipps has spent the greater part of his life around aircraft, pursuing his love of flying.
And up until June 4, it had been a safe pursuit.

Bill Phipps has spent the greater part of his life around aircraft, pursuing his love of flying.

Until June 4, it was a safe pursuit.

The 71-year-old doctor from Campbell River was six minutes into an eight-minute opening routine at the Wings and Wheels air show at Nanaimo Airport when his self-built Steen Skybolt biplane crashed into a grassy section off the east side of the tarmac.

He was airlifted to Victoria General Hospital and had immediate surgery to repair multiple compound fractures in his right arm.

“That was the priority because doctors were worried about infection,” said Phipps’s younger brother John Phipps.

Bill Phipps was then transferred to Royal Jubilee Hospital where he underwent nine hours of plastic surgery to rebuild his face.

“The middle-third of his face absorbed most of the impact and they had to harvest bone material to restructure his face,” said John Phipps. “He is lucky. The plastic surgeon told us the human face is a crumple zone like the front end of a car and absorbed the impact, saving his brain.”

Now in Royal Jubilee’s complex injury unit, Bill Phipps also has a shattered L1 lumbar vertebrae in his back and a broken right foot.

“I guess considering what he’s been through, he’s doing surprisingly well,” said John Phipps. “He was in a drug-induced coma for about 10 days, but is awake and alert, off the ventilator and talking and still has the same bad sense of humour he always had.”

Phipps said his brother has no memory of the crash, but remembers being at Nanaimo Airport June 4 and that he was supposed to fly at the Oak Bay Tea Party the next day.

“He has all his faculties, no brain injury or concussion. I told him he was six minutes into his routine and he knew he only had two minutes of the performance left,” said John Phipps. “We’re told the drugs he received will promote amnesia.”

Bill Phipps developed his love of flying with air cadets in Nanaimo and began stunt aerobatics close to 20 years ago.

“He takes flying very seriously and safety is always paramount. This is his first crash,” said John Phipps. “We worry, but have complete confidence in him. My wife has been up numerous times with him, doing dives and rolls.”

Bill Phipps took nine years to build his Skybolt biplane and bristles at all comments calling it a kit.

“It was hand-built and is his pride and joy,” said John Phipps. “We’re just glad he’s still with us. You never know what might have happened. The Oak Bay air show the next day was over water and other shows are over asphalt and don’t have the fields like Nanaimo.”

As for returning to flying, John Phipps said he has chatted a bit with his brother about the  future.

“I think he’s guessing his flying days are over, but it’s too early to tell,” he said. “I think I’d like to see him fly again, but maybe not in the cockpit of a stunt biplane.

“Medicine is very important to him and he is dedicated to his patients, but his love of flying would be a close second if not tied for first.”

Transport Canada had an inspector on the scene to monitor the air show and continues its investigation into the crash.