When Stefan McClelland finally reached the plane and saw the smashed cockpit rapidly filling with water, he knew he would need to act quickly to save the pilot trapped inside.
The Cantley native had just seconds to react Oct. 2, when he saw the bright yellow Lake LA 4200 float plane make a hard landing on the Ottawa River – seconds that could have made the difference between life and death for the pilot, Yvon Bedard. The 69-year-old Orleans resident is thankful his “guardian angel” showed up when he did.
“Who knows what would have happened?” wondered the pilot with over 40 years of flying experience from his east Ottawa home several days after the mid-morning crash. “It’s a good thing he was there.”
McClelland was in his little tinny fishing boat near Petrie Island, when he saw the plane take a sharp and unusual turn. He saw it splash into the river and instantly knew something was wrong.
McClelland quickly fired up his 25-horsepower motor and carefully inched toward the plane that was now spinning out of control on the water.
“I saw a body in there, but had no idea if he was alive,” said McClelland, a 39-year-old who is an Ottawa Police civilian employee. “I was petrified coming up to this thing.”
He saw Bedard trying to exit the half-submerged cockpit and noticed that he couldn’t get the door open. McClelland finally got his boat close enough to reach up and pull on the handle. Both men together struggled with the door for what seemed like minutes before it finally gave way – releasing a sudden flood into the cockpit. The powerful wave immersed Bedard as its weight began to pull the plane downward.
“I was holding onto him with all I had, and he was getting pulled down with the plane,” said McClelland, adding that even his boat was beginning to tip over.
“At one point I was thinking, ‘Am I going to have to let go?’ ”
But he never did. He held onto Bedard’s arm until the pilot surfaced and scrambled into the boat, shivering and in shock, according to McClelland.
The men watched silently as the small aircraft descended ominously into the depths, a sight McClelland can only describe as “creepy.”
“It was a matter of seconds,” added Bedard, reflecting on how lucky he was to escape with his life.
McClelland gave Bedard dry clothing and hot coffee and drove him to shore, where paramedics were called to treat him for broken ribs and bruises.
Bedard told McClelland a combination of sunlight in his eyes and the glassy river surface led to the crash.
It wasn’t the first time the Orleans pilot has cheated death. A mishap in 1970, four years after he started flying, left him out of commission for two-and-a-half months. Engine failure during takeoff was to blame for the crash that proved to be much more than just a physical toll for Bedard.
“I can’t remember much of that at all,” he said.
‘MacGyver’ move saves plane
Although Bedard had been brought to safety, McClelland’s rescue mission wasn’t quite over. He went back to save the plane.
Before heading for shore with Bedard in the boat, a quick-thinking McClelland jerry-rigged a makeshift anchored buoy, using a shoestring, a Leatherman multi-tool and a Gatorade bottle to mark the spot where the plane sank.
The MacGyver-type move saved divers hours of fishing in the dark for the aircraft, which was recovered less than an hour later.