Pilot in Gabriola crash was heir to Bahlsen biscuit empire in Germany

Alex Bahlsen, the pilot who died Tuesday when his private twin-engine plane crashed on Gabriola Island, was an heir to the Bahlsen biscuit empire in Germany.

Bahlsen, who moved to Canada more than 30 years ago, was the great-grandson of the company’s founder, Hermann Bahlsen. The Bahlsen company was started in 1889 and launched its famous plain butter biscuit, Leibniz-Butterkeks, in 1891.

The privately held company is based in Hanover and has five production facilities in Europe. It exports its biscuits and cakes to about 55 countries, including Canada.

Bahlsen, 61, was an experienced paraglider, aviator and flight instructor, and owned a private paved airstrip, A.J. Flying Ranch, about 100 kilometres south of Calgary.

He was the registered owner of the 1982 Piper Aerostar which crashed on the northwest corner of Gabriola Island.

Witnesses said the plane appeared to struggle in the sky and then quickly descended about 6 p.m. When it nose-dived into a wooded area off Decourcy Drive, many heard a “huge explosion.”

Gabriola resident Dave Holme said that he saw the plane spiral to the ground, and when he rushed to the scene of the fiery crash he was prepared for the horror. “When you are first on site to a plane crash, mentally you have to be prepared for what you are going to see and I was,” said Holme. “I didn’t even really think about it, but I knew what I was getting into.”

If there was a chance of survivors, he said, he wanted to help them.

The RCMP said there were multiple deaths, but the Transportation Safety Board has not confirmed the number.

On Thursday night, a registered trauma counsellor was made available by the Nanaimo Regional District at the Gabriola Fire Hall for those having a hard time dealing what they saw and heard, or who just wanted to come together with others.

Holme wasn’t planning to attend, but said getting together for a session led by a registered therapist will help many people. “Everybody processes this kind of thing differently,” he said. “For some of the people who live around here, it may be good to get together.”

Gabriola resident Jean Wyenberg said many in the area who heard or saw the crash are elderly, alone or already dealing with trauma.

The plane departed Eastern Sierra Regional Airport in Bishop, California and was approaching a runway at Nanaimo Airport when it crashed, the Transportation Safety Board said. Gabriola residents said it was dark and foggy at the time.

The Transportation Safety Board, led by investigator Dan Clarke, went through the wreckage on Thursday, but did not release any new information.

Anyone affected by the crash and in need of support can call the Vancouver Island Crisis Line 250-800-3806.

— With files from Cindy E. Harnett

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