Aviation students share their memories of two flight instructors killed in plane crash
It was the early evening of Feb. 13 and Cole Tuza, a second-year aviation student at Mount Royal University was on a routine training flight with his instructor.
Near the end of his flight, Tuza and his instructor overheard the Tower at Springbank Airport radioing the only other MRU aircraft in the sky: a twin-engine Tecnam P2006T piloted by two well-loved instructors, Reynold Johnson and Jeffrey Bird.
There was no answer.
The Tower radioed Tuza’s plane and asked them to go out and see if they could find anything because contact with the other plane had been lost. They said yes and turned their plane around, thinking that Johnson and Bird may have had a minor communication problem, which isn’t usually a cause for concern.
The spot tracker, which updates the GPS coordinates of aircrafts in the air, revealed that the coordinates for Johnson and Bird’s plane hadn’t moved for nearly 15 minutes.
Tuza and his instructor did a grid search of the area where Johnson and Bird had been practicing, and at first, they didn’t find anything, so they continued flying and communicating with the Tower. Then, they received the very last recorded coordinates of Johnson and Bird’s plane, and they were able to narrow down their search.
As they flew over the practice area approximately 100 kilometres northwest of Calgary near Waiparous, they spotted smoke and a fire on the ground. Although they couldn’t see much from the air, it would later be confirmed that this was the crash site where Johnson and Bird died.
“As soon as we found out something was wrong, we went from student and instructor to crew. My instructor took over, I went into monitoring [and] I was writing stuff down, talking to people on the radio,” said Tuza, who has experience with emergency response and has served in the military. “It was definitely hard, but our number one priority was making sure that our airplane was back on the ground.”
They sent their coordinates to the Tower. Soon, RCMP helicopters and STARS were on their way to the scene.
Tuza grew up in the Waiparous area so he was able to contact his father who is on the Ghost River Fire Department and let him know what was going on. “I gave him the coordinates, and he was able to relay them to the fire crew that was out there,” said Tuza. “STARS then used their spotlight to direct the fire crews exactly to where it was, so they were able to find it very quickly.”
Meanwhile, many aviation students had gathered for a soccer game on campus at MRU where they were competing on a team made up completely of students from their program.
Taylor Jackson, a first-year aviation student was there playing soccer and she remembers the moment that she and the other students began to suspect something was wrong.
“I remember everything like it was in slow motion. Somebody’s flight got cancelled for the evening, and we were like, ‘Oh that’s weird, I wonder why, the weather’s not that bad tonight.’ And apparently, the radios were down at the airport, and that never happens.”
About 20 minutes later, they received the news that one of MRU’s Tecnam aircrafts had crashed.
“We kind of started freaking out a little bit. The rest of the soccer game, I can’t even remember it,” said Jackson. “We got on the internet and found out who had been scheduled to fly, and there was two flights up. We were like, ‘Oh my god, it’s one of those two.’”
Back at the hangar, Tuza was debriefing the situation, fielding worried messages from his classmates, and keeping in contact with his dad who updated him with information from the scene.
Jackson spoke with Tuza later that evening as she waited anxiously for some news, sitting in her room watching the weather and aircraft tracking data while constantly refreshing news websites. “Apparently there were no cars or ambulances that were going back towards the hospital, which is not good news,” said Jackson. “Well, it’s either really good news, or really bad news.”
The tragic reality sank in when Jackson refreshed the news webpage one more time.
“I just saw ‘two dead in crash’ and it was so much more than just those words. At that moment, I was in my room and I just hit the ground, I was completely crying. I’m not a person that is very emotional, but I’ve never experienced something like that. I was sitting in my room, on the floor, and I don’t know how long I was there.”
By 9 p.m. on Feb. 13, news spread that two of MRU’s aviation programs flight instructors had been killed in the plane crash.
Finding comfort in community
Later that night, 30 – 40 aviation students crammed into a residence room to watch the news, coming together to support each other as a family.
“We were all just sitting there until about 2:30 in the morning, and at first it was just quiet for quite a while, and then we just went around and shared some of our favourite memories of the two men, and there was a lot of good stuff, so many tears. I doubt I’ll ever see the majority of those people cry again. It was a very raw time,” said Jackson.
Through laughter and tears, the students spent the sleepless night sharing their memories of Johnson and Bird, finding comfort in the fact that they were in this together.
Early the next morning, the students and faculty gathered on campus to meet with each other and the president of the university. Counsellors from MRU, University of Alberta and University of Calgary came to support the students and faculty for the entire day.
With just 66 students enrolled, the aviation diploma program is made up of a small group of students and instructors who spend most of their days together, whether it’s taking classes, going for flights, or just hanging out.
Tuza and Jackson both recognize the importance of community when dealing with loss.
“Being such a tight-knit community, I don’t think there’s ever really a time when anyone was isolated or alone. Everyone was open to everybody else and spent a lot of time with each other,” said Tuza. “We do have a really good support network for each other in our program.”
Jackson, who just moved to Calgary from Victoria in September, refers to the aviation community as her family. “The night of, it was really really amazing that we could be together. I don’t really know what I would have done if I was home alone,” she said.
Although their time with the MRU aviation program was short, Johnson and Bird had a lasting impact on their students and colleagues, leaving behind a legacy cherished by all those who knew them.
Jackson and Tuza are two students who had the opportunity to learn from Johnson and Bird, either in flight lessons or just having conversations on the ground. As they reflected on their time with them, they remembered how the two men inspired and equipped them to pursue their aviation dreams.
Reyn Johnson: sincere, loving, selfless
Johnson, 64, had more than 35 years of aviation experience and over 20,000 hours of flying. He was devoted to his family, and he loved teaching because he wanted to give back to the community.
To Jackson, he was a grandfather figure who was always sincere, loving, optimistic, and selfless.“He gave everything his all, and he gave so much love, it was just shining out of him. He was just a great friend.”
Though she never got to fly with Johnson, she had a few ground briefs with him and he was always there to greet her with a smile and a hug whenever she came to the hangar. He taught her many life lessons, the biggest one being to always be honest with people and express your emotions.
“He’d come up and pat me on the shoulder and say, ‘Taylor, I just want to make it perfectly clear how happy I am to see you.’ And he’d say it a few times a day, he was just so sincere about everything,” said Jackson. “That’s something that I’ll take away from him, to be more honest with people about how I really feel.”
As Jackson looked back on her time with him as her instructor, she smiled and recalled the first ground brief she had with him.
“I made date squares the first time I came in, just to share, and I didn’t know Reyn that well then. We were walking around the hanger, and he was just talking and goofing around and eating a date square,” she said. “He was just hilarious.”
Tuza flew a couple flights with Johnson and cherishes the knowledge that he passed on.
“He left a lot of knowledge with me personally. I was fortunate to be able to fly with Reyn a few times before the incident, and I’ll always take the things that he taught me and apply them to my next ventures,” said Tuza.
As a flight instructor, Johnson was quiet yet supportive of his students, letting them figure things out on their on own and take leadership while still making sure they always knew he was there to help.
“It was always nice when I could look at my schedule and say, ‘oh I get to fly with Reyn today, it’s going to be a fun flight,’” recalled Tuza.
A statement from Johnson’s family describes him as “generous, fun-loving, kind and committed to his family and many friends. Although he was a private person, he was also very open, and he valued time with those he cared about. He, his wife Brenda and their children, Maryse and Luc, created a home that was loving and welcoming to others. Their life together was a foundation of love and strength for their family, church, friends and community.”
Jeff Bird: joyful, dedicated, honest
Bird, 35, served in the Royal Canadian Air Force for more than a decade. He was described as hard-working and honest, always willing to help, and he was a loving husband and a proud father of his two children.
At Bird’s memorial, his wife Carly Barnett said that Jeff was “the happiest, smiliest, most positive person I, and many of us, have ever met. He was like a beacon of happiness that radiated positivity everywhere and always.”
Bird began instructing for the MRU aviation program in January 2017, and Jackson was one of only a few students who got the chance to fly with him.
Jackson’s dream is to serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force, just as Bird did.
“My flight with him was really cool, it was actually the Saturday before the accident. During our flight, there were coyotes on the runway so we couldn’t land. There was a ton of stuff going on, and you could just see his military background coming out in how he flies and how he responds to situations,” said Jackson.
Jackson valued Bird’s expertise as a flight instructor and remembers his unique approach to teaching aviation.
“He had this huge smile, and everything he said was with so much confidence, and he went about things in a different way. He brought trigonometry into landing an airplane, which was really interesting, I’ve never seen that before,” said Jackson.
She recalled that Bird would bring a box of Tim Horton’s coffee to share with the students before a ground brief or flight, spending time just talking with the students, which often included him sharing stories about his young daughter.
“He was just such a real person,” said Jackson. “He was so lighthearted about everything, and he didn’t put up with anybody’s crap. I think he got it partially from being in the military, and partially from being a dad,” Jackson said.
Although Tuza didn’t get to fly with Bird, he spoke with him at the hangar often and related to his military background.
“Jeff had a military-mindset. He was very straightforward, to-the-point, but he also was quite funny. He always was making jokes,” said Tuza.
Bird’s knowledge and experience allowed him to give Tuza valuable advice and encourage him to continue following his dream of being in the military.
“He said if I still wanted to join the military, I could talk to this person or go this route, he really gave me a lot of choice and a lot more ideas for options that I didn’t really know I had at all,” said Tuza.
After the incident, aviation flights and classes were put on hold for two weeks, giving the students and faculty time to come to terms with what happened and grieve the loss of their two instructors.
Although the tragedy was difficult for students, Jackson and Tuza said that most of the students were eager to get back in the air.
“Reyn and Jeff were both people who wanted us all to succeed and follow our dreams, and these are our dreams. Most of us just wanted to get back in the cockpit and just fly. Just get up and build hours and fly and work towards what they wanted us to work towards. There was no hesitation at all,” said Jackson.
Before continuing with their training, all students had to complete two reactivation missions, where they do circuits of landing and taking off.
Teaching was a passion for both Johnson and Bird, so the students hope to honour them by doing exactly what their instructors would have wanted them to do: fly.
Although Johnson and Bird are gone, their legacy lives on in the way they inspired and taught the students.
For Tuza, the knowledge they shared with him will be something he carries with him as he pursues his career in aviation. “They both really gave me the tools that I need to progress, in their own way.”
Jackson will also remember the lessons they taught her, both personally and professionally.
“They were both just so successful, and even after retiring, they chose to give back,” she said. “And so, going forward in my career, I want to be the best I can be, and gain every experience that I get the opportunity to, and then once I’m done, then I want to give it back just like they did.”