Langley Faces and Places – April 17

TWU air tragedy parlayed into seasonal memorial of beauty

Janice Nikkel, a former Trinity Western University student who is now the B.C. Parent Engagement Officer at TWU, was asked to write about a memory she had from student days.

The memory that came to her was particularly timely, with trees in full bloom on campus.

She felt she would like to share it with the Langley Advance – a story of six TWU aviation students and instructors who lost their lives nearly a quarter century ago, the effect the tragedy on students such as herself, and how their memories are preserved through six beautiful cherry trees.

by Janice Nikkel

BA ’92, MA Leadership ’08).

I came to Trinity Western from Ontario, and never planned to stay in Langley.

But all these years later, I have raised our four kids on a small farm in South Langley. They attend both Wix Brown Elementary and D.W. Poppy Secondary.

As of the fall 2013, I am now the B.C. Parent Engagement Officer at TWU, and look forward to our eldest daughter Tori attending Trinity this coming fall.

If you haven’t been on Trinity Western’s campus for a while, the grounds crew does a fabulous job keeping things looking beautiful.

Springtime on campus is particularly beautiful, especially during those few weeks when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. They never cease to delight students, faculty, staff and guests.

Some of the blossoms on campus include six cherry trees that were planted in 1991, in memory of the six aviation students and instructors who lost their lives on a flight that went terribly wrong.

Twenty-three years ago, I was in my third year at Trinity Western. It was March 5, and the campus was in shock to receive the tragic news that two of our planes had gone down.

As details unfolded, we learned that five of our TWU planes were flying home from the Mission Aviation Fellowship Headquarters in Redlands, California. Bad weather delayed them out of Sacramento, and again in Everett, WA.

Once cleared for take off from Everett, the pilots faced unexpected white-out conditions that restricted visibility to zero.

Senior Flight Instructor Bob Chapman radioed the four other planes to say he was turning back, but by then, it was too late for two of the planes.

The first plane crashed into Chuckanut Mountain, and the other, within minutes, plunged into a forest just off the I-5 south of Bellingham, WA.

Given that two planes went down so quickly near each other, it was determined that the fully qualified pilots didn’t even have a chance, leaving them at the mercy of the weather conditions.

It was a somber time on campus. The news hit close to home for all of us. These aviation students and instructors were fellow classmates and friends to many.

And when tragedy strikes this close to home, it impacts everyone.

There is no way to get over a disaster like this easily.

I had been involved in a tree plant in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when the 101st Airborne Division had lost 248 soldiers in a plane crash in 1985 in Gander, NFLD, so I knew how meaningful this kind of memorial could be.

Student council liked the idea, so we chose beautiful trees that were a symbol of life.

We planted a cherry blossom tree for each pilot.

Twenty-three years later, these trees continue to be a highlight on campus every spring.

A memorial plaque was installed on a rock near the trees, with the names of each pilot who died.

The trees stand as a living memorial for the lives of each of these pilots and former Trinity Western students: Teena Daly , Jeffrey Helzer, Al Karim Merali, Danny Penner, Graeme Seath (Instructor), and Terry Townsend.

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