Jailbreak has aviation experts rethinking regulations

Quebec manhunt continues for men who escaped by helicopter from Orsainville Detention Centre

Quebec police are still hunting for three men who escaped from Orsainville Detention Centre near Quebec City by helicopter on Saturday. Few details of the brazen escape are being released, and it is not clear whether the helicopter was piloted by a friend of the escapees— three men awaiting trial on charges of drug trafficking, gangsterism and murder — or if it was hijacked and the pilot was forced to touch down in the prison yard.

The last helicopter jailbreak came in March 2013, when a pilot from the Passport Helico company was forced at gunpoint to fly to a jail outside Montreal in St-Jerome, Que. As it hovered above the yard, two inmates climbed up a rope ladder and flew off. The two escapees and their two accomplices were caught about 85 km away within a few hours.

As Quebec police continue the manhunt, they wouldn’t say whether they knew where the helicopter was headed, although reports said it flew west towards Trois-Rivieres after it left the jail.

Aviation experts say the latest great escape has made them stop and think about helicopter regulations in Canada.

“Until the last two incidents, this was a pretty rare event. It’s not like it was commonplace,” said Fred Jones, president and CEO of the Helicopter Association of Canada.

Jones said there are no security checks on anyone who flies or charters a helicopter. There are also no requirements to file a flight plan except for a few commercial and cross-border trips. And helicopters are almost impossible to find on radar, especially when they fly at low altitudes. Jones said they could also turn off the transponder, silencing a signal that can also be detected by radar.

Once the helicopter lands and turns off the engine, “it’s really just a piece of metal in the woods at that point,” said Jones. “It would be more difficult to find than a parked car.”

After the Passport Helico helicopter was highjacked last March, the company instituted new security measures to protect its pilots, although president Yves Le Roux would not provide details.

Le Roux said the best way to prevent helicopter jailbreaks is to cover prison yards with wire mesh, which would make it impossible for helicopters to land there.

“We would like those wires to be implemented so that this will never happen again. But it’s up to the government, not the helicopter industry, to push for their implementation,” he said. “Nobody wants to be hijacked.”

Both experts agree changing the regulations around flight plans would just add more rules and paperwork.

“It would just be a burden for us and it will not prevent these types of incidences,” said Le Roux. “We should definitely have a discussion. Is it going to happen again and again? I don’t know. But if I were responsible for the prisons, I would definitely reach out to the helicopter industry to figure out what to do.”

Escapees Yves Denis, 35, Denis Lefebvre, 53, and Serge Pmerleau, 49, were captured in a raid on a drug-trafficking ring in northwestern Quebec in 2010. During the raid, police seized $905,000 worth of cocaine, along with other drugs. They also seized a plane and a helicopter.