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Dream weekend ends in tragedy

Hockey team's celebrations marred by deadly crash

WASKADA -- It was supposed to be the perfect end to a dream weekend.

On Sunday afternoon, less than a day after being honoured at a Brandon Wheat Kings hockey game, Darren Spence, his two sons and the boys' friend boarded Spence's private plane for a flight from Waskada to Brandon.

Under freezing fog and icy conditions, the six-seater Cessna 210 left a private airstrip and flew about five kilometres before crashing into a farmer's field north of Waskada. The impact killed all four occupants -- Spence, 37, his sons, Gage, 10, and Logan, 9, and their friend and teammate Dawson Pentecost, 9.

Dawson had never been on a plane, and before takeoff, he phoned his father to make sure it was OK.

Dawson's father, Dave Pentecost, knew the pilot well. Spence was an experienced crop-dusting pilot in Waskada and if he was going to trust his son with anyone in the air, it would be Spence.

But later Sunday afternoon, Pentecost, a construction worker and volunteer firefighter, got a message on his pager that a plane had gone down. He rushed out on snowmobile to a field outside of town and was one of the first to find the wreckage.

He fell to his knees and cried. When Pentecost got himself together, he called his wife.

"The plane was in pieces -- nothing left," said Pentecost's oldest child, 15-year old Talis Taylor-Meszaros.

The teen said Monday his parents are so distraught by his brother's death, they have asked him to speak for the family.

He said they don't blame the pilot.

"It's not his fault," Talis said. "It wasn't Darren who did it. It was totally the plane's fault. He'd never do anything, especially with his kids there and especially with someone else's kid there."

Jason Ryden, who coached the three boys on their Pierson/Waskada Canucks atom hockey team, described the boys as "free spirits."

With Spence by their side as a chaperone at the Wheaties game on Saturday, where the team was honoured as minor hockey team of the night, Ryden said the boys got a huge kick out of being shown and introduced on the Jumbotron in front of thousands of fans.

"They were all so full of energy, so excited for the game," Ryden said.

Prior to the game, all 12 kids on the team went out for supper together, sporting their Canucks atom hockey jerseys.

"We got all the kids together and went to the Pizza Place, and all the kids went into the play structure and had more of a sweat on in there than they did at the hockey game, because they were all together and having a lot of fun,"àRyden said.

Monday, the team was supposed to host Hartney in a provincial qualifier, but Ryden said the decision was made to cancel the series so they can focus on supporting the two families coping with the tragedy, and the nine remaining players of the team.

News of the tragedy spread quickly through Waskada, a village of about 200 residents about 330 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.

"Darren was a great father and good community man," Waskada Mayor Gary Williams said while fighting back tears. "He was a positive, upbeat person and any time you had an exchange with him, you usually left with a smile on your face."

At the school, a sign reading 'Forever in our hearts Dawson Gage Logan Darren' stood out front, while the Canadian flag was at half-mast.

Grief counsellors were at the K-12 school, which has about 90 students, as it attempts to come to grips with losing three of its own.

"There's no question. It's not pilot error," said Terry Linto, one of Spence's close friends. "It's got to be mechanical."

He stressed Spence always put safety first. Spence grew up flying planes with his family. His father, Edward Spence, was a spray pilot for about 50 years.

The elder Spence recently had a stroke, said Linto, and relatives are worried the death of his only son and two grandsons will affect his health.

Linto said Spence's passion for flying was matched by his love of his children. He said the single dad raised his boys and also had a young daughter.

Spence built his boys their own dirt-bike racing track on the farm, drove them to hockey practice and, on some weekends, took them up in the air for a ride. He also had a gravel, sand and construction business.

"It is just about the worst news you could ever imagine," said Williams. "They are people from our community and it is just a real tragedy. It is devastating."

-- Brandon Sun, with files from The Canadian Press

Probe will focus on pilot, weather

AN investigation is underway into the plane crash near Waskada that killed as many people Sunday as did all the deadly flights in Manitoba last year.

The wreckage was strewn over a large stretch of a farmer's field in southwestern Manitoba, said Peter Hildebrand, regional manager with the Transportation Safety Board.

Crash investigators will look at the 1963 plane's maintenance records, the pilot, and weather conditions, Hildebrand said Monday.

"The pilot was reported to have a valid licence and medical certificate," said Hildebrand. It isn't yet known whether the "relatively young" pilot had "instrumentation rating" and could operate the plane using instruments if visibility were limited, he said.

Hildebrand said there was 1.2 kilometres visibility at the time, a 180-metre cloud ceiling, light mist, freezing fog and icing conditions at the time.

The plane's emergency locator went off 17 minutes after the plane departed, likely on impact.

The wreckage was found almost five kilometres from the point of departure, a private air strip near Waskada. The plane was en route to Brandon, said Hildebrand.

Their job is to find out what happened and, if the crash was preventable, how to try to make sure such an accident doesn't happen again, he said.

"This is obviously a tragedy," Hildebrand said. In all of 2012, four people died in three fatal airplane crashes in Manitoba.

-- Brandon Sun, staff

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