The helicopter pilot expected to take two tourists for a weekend flight around the Mont-Tremblant ski resort. Instead, one of his passengers pointed a firearm at his head and ordered him to fly to a local prison.

That hijacking started a daring escape attempt Sunday from a Quebec prison, which ended hours later in a shootout with police and all four suspects getting arrested.

At gunpoint, the helicopter pilot flew to the Saint-Jérôme detention centre, where two inmates in the courtyard grabbed ropes and were lifted out of the compound.

With the two men dangling underneath, the overloaded helicopter landed in a field nearby. The two prisoners then boarded the helicopter, which flew 30 kilometres to a hotel parking lot in Estérel, where they fled in a Cadillac Escalade.

The pilot tried to radio an emergency signal to airtraffic control, according to Yves Le Roux, president of the helicopter rental company, Passport-Hélico. The hijackers became suspicious said Mr. Le Roux, who said he spoke at some length with the experienced pilot.

“He did what he had to do, but they knew something was going on. They ripped off his headset,” Mr. Le Roux said.

After landing at L’Esterel, the hijackers covered the pilot’s head with a T-shirt and drove off. Once he felt it was safe, the pilot removed the mask, dug out a headset that the hijackers had overlooked, and  flew back to his base at Mont-Tremblant.

The provincial police deployed a vast operation, airlifting heavily armed tactical officers to the area. As they got off their vehicle, the suspects exchanged shots with police before breaking into a cottage, said Sergeant Benoît Richard, a Sûreté du Québec spokesman.

The cottage’s residents managed to flee and police arrested three suspects, inmate Benjamin Hudon-Barbeau, 36, and the two helicopter hijackers around 7: 30 p.m. near Chertsey.

The second escapee, Dany Provençal, was cornered at a sugar shack and surrendered two hours later.

Police have not identified the two hijacking suspects. A journalist for La Presse who saw one of them in a squad car reported that the man spoke Spanish and, when asked his name, replied “Loco” (Crazy).

The episode put the spotlight on Mr. Hudon-Barbeau, known to police and media as a Hells Angels sympathizer but who portrayed himself as an innocent who feared so much for his life while behind bars that he had to escape.

In phone conversations with veteran police reporter Claude Poirier and with his father during the few hours he was at large, Mr. Hudon-Barbeau explained that he was desperate because police pressured him to co-operate with authorities.

“They offered me three millions to be an informant. I didn’t want to become an informant so they said I’d die in jail,” he told Mr. Poirier.

Mr. Hudon-Barbeau’s father, Michel Barbeau, told Mr. Poirier to that his son had been placed in a prison wing with the “Bleus,” street gang members who model themselves along the Crips.

His son had just gotten out of solitary confinement after fighting with two black inmates, Mr. Barbeau said. The gang members thought Mr. Hudon-Barbeau had killed two of their brethren in a gunfight at a Laval nightclub in 2006, despite his acquittal in 2012 after a witness recanted.

“There are reasons. People need to know there are reasons why he did this. It’s not decided with the snap of your fingers.”

Mr. Hudon-Barbeau was also part of 156 suspects arrested in a crackdown against the Hells Angels and their sympathizers in 2009. He was however among 31 a judge ordered released because of court delays.

He was held in Saint-Jérôme, 60 kilometres northwest of Montreal, after getting arrested again last November and being accused of unauthorized possession of a firearm.

The Saint-Jérôme detention centre, where he was held, is the most overcrowded provincial prison, with a 114 per cent occupancy rate, according to government spending estimates. In 2011-2012, it held an average of 415 inmates though it officially has a capacity of 364.

Mr. Hudon-Barbeau and Mr. Provençal are to appear in court this afternoon. Charges are expected to include attempted murder, pointing a firearm, possession of a restricted firearm, break and entry and hijacking.

 

The helicopter pilot was hospitalized but was not physically harmed.

His helicopter, a four-seater Robinson R44 helicopter was powerful enough to handle carrying five people, Mr. Le Roux said. “It helped that it wasn’t full of fuel,” he said. “Of course someone wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, but there are no rules when someone’s got a gun to your head.”

Mr. Le Roux said the pilot was in shock and still pumped on adrenaline after the incident, but he seemed to be doing fine. “It’s certainly traumatic for our pilot, but it ended about as well as you could hope,” Mr. Le Roux said.

The cold weather, making the air denser, would have helped, says a flight instructor, Adam Tastula of Great Lakes Helicopter.

While landing and taking off from a prison roof is not overly tricky, Mr. Tastula said, “jailbreak is not something we practice.”

 

Helicopter pilot flew Quebec prison escapees with gun at his head – Globe and Mail
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