Friends and colleagues are mourning the loss of a Cowichan Valley community leader after Gerald Paul Thom of Youbou was killed in a plane crash near Nanaimo last Saturday.
Thom, 50, and his friend, Michael Cyril Weir, 73, of Saltspring Island, had built the aircraft, an Avid amphibian, themselves from a kit.
According to Matt Brown, of the B.C. Coroners Service, Thom and Weir "were taking their home-built aircraft on flight trials, taking off from the Nanaimo Airport, which is located at Cassidy south of Nanaimo, on the evening of July 26.
"Shortly after 7 p.m., witnesses observed the plane to be in trouble shortly after takeoff. It crashed almost immediately onto the neighbouring Cottonwood Golf Course. Both men were deceased at the scene."
Earlier in the day Saturday, Thom had been busy working with a big group of enthusiastic volunteers at a riparian repair project along the shore of Cowichan Lake.
By Sunday, shocked Cowichan Valley friends were sharing the sad news about the tragedy.
Water conservationist David Slade said in an email, "We have lost a giant of a man in terms of his passion and dedication to sustainability in the Cowichan. It is indeed a sad day for the Cowichan Valley and for all of the family and friends of these men."
Lake Cowichan Mayor Ross Forrest, a member of the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society, posted on his Facebook page, "My heart goes out to the families and friends of Gerald and Michael. What a terrible loss.
"Gerald did more to protect our lake and river than anyone could possibly imagine. He was a true champion for our community."
Rodger Hunter, another Valley conservationist and great friend of Thom’s, said Sunday that he was stunned by the news.
"There was a small gathering yesterday of people who knew Gerald. It was extremely uplifting. The river was flowing by and we said what our thoughts were about Gerald. It was an affirmation of what an incredible person Gerald was for everyone."
Thom passionately loved Cowichan Lake, and Hunter said that at present efforts are being made to fence off his last shoreline planting project area to help preserve the young plants from predation by deer and elk.
In addition, talks are underway to try and establish some kind of lasting legacy in Thom’s honour, Hunter said.
Judy Brayden, another member of the society, said Tuesday that the stewardship group simply felt the need to share their feelings so she organized the get-together Monday with that purpose.
"We knew we had to just get together and hold each other because we were intimately involved with Gerald and the work he did. We had to do it before any other kind of official ceremony by the family because we were just so devastated.
"So, we literally sat in a circle and put the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society stuff to one side and said: what do we have to say about losing our friend. We wrote comments down on a great big piece of board with a picture on it and took it to Caroline [Thom’s wife] so she knew we were grieving, too.
"There were so many people that knew him well. He was so respectful. He was the consummate gentleman. He could work with anyone. That’s why he achieved so much."
Thom had been the driving force behind the Cowichan Shoreline Stewardship Project.
"Gerald was the maestro behind that.
And we have these students we’ve hired, and although he said working like that was new to him, he quickly worked out the teaching strategies and got the whole thing going so seamlessly with skills he said he didn’t have. The kids bonded with him. He had such impact on people.
"The Cowichan Water Board, the CVRD, the Ministry of the Environment, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans: all of those people will be sorry to have lost Gerald. His influence was so great," Brayden said.
Bill Yearwood, aviation accident investigator with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said that the wreckage will be investigated to see why the pilot lost control.
After takeoff, the aircraft was about 300 feet out when it rolled to the left and dove into the ground at a very steep angle, he said, adding, "The impact with the ground was not survivable."
It’s the first time Yearwood has come across a home-built amphibious aircraft. The aircraft has a single, "pusher prop" engine.
"This particular one is relatively new. It’s only been flying since December," he said. "It looks like the owners were flying it quite regularly."
The wrecked plane, the only aircraft of its kind registered in B.C., is now at the airport as investigations continue.
The wreckage was cleared Saturday night and only a charred patch of ground was visible on the golf course.
â€”With files from the Times Colonist