VICTORIA -- Three people were killed when a small airplane crashed on B.C.'s Gabriola Island Tuesday night, CTV News Vancouver Island has learned.

The plane, a twin-engine Piper Aerostar, took off from Bishop Airport northeast of Fresno Calif., and crashed in a fiery wreck while making its approach to the Nanaimo airport, according to a spokesperson for Maritime Forces Pacific who spoke on behalf of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Victoria.

The pilot, Alex Bahlsen, was remembered by a friend who said he has flown with Bahlsen in the same aircraft that crashed Tuesday.

"He was amazing, I don't know what else to say," said Raz Rydstrøm-Poulsen. "I miss him very much."

Rydstrøm-Poulsen said Bahlsen "was the smoothest, best pilot in the universe."

He added that Bahlsen flew charters and also enjoyed flying friends around.

Bishop Airport manager Steve Loven tells CTV News the plane may have simply stopped at Bishop to refuel after the flight originated elsewhere. He said the plane may have "self-served" at the airport's fuel pumps.

Investigators with the Transportation Safety Board and the BC Coroners Service's Special Investigations Unit remained on scene Wednesday, examining a debris field spanning 500 square metres.

The coroners service said late Wednesday afternoon that identification of the crash victims was ongoing.

"Confirmation of the number of deceased and their identities will occur once identification has been definitively established and their family members have been notified," said coroners service spokesperson Andy Watson. "This process may take several days."

British Columbia Emergency Health Services and the RCMP say the first emergency calls came in around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Residents on Gabriola Island tell CTV News the crash shook their homes and rattled windows across the island.

Arriving at the gruesome scene just moments after the impact, resident Dave Holme said that only the plane's tail appeared intact.

"I just saw the tail end of a plane with the fins sticking straight out of the ground," Holme said.

"I'd probably say within a minute I was at the crash site. I ran into the bushes, still in my slippers, just looking for any signs of life. It was a horror show in there. Absolute horror. Everything was on fire."

The TSB is expected to report more details from the crash site Wednesday afternoon.

RCMP spokesman Cpl. Chris Manseau said the area where the plane went down is primarily a residential neighbourhood but police were not aware of any injuries on the ground.

Gabriola Island, which has a population of about 4,000, is a 20-minute ferry ride east of Nanaimo.