Official Report: Fatigued Air Canada Pilot Thought Planet Was an Airplane

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An official report has been released by the Transportation
Safety Board of Canada (TSB) detailing the events surrounding a January 2011
midair incident, in which a fatigued Air Canada pilot forced his aircraft to
rapidly descend towards the Atlantic Ocean after mistaking the planet Venus for
an oncoming plane.

The incident occurred on an overnight flight from Toronto,
Canada to Zurich, Switzerland. In total, 14 passengers and two flight crew
members were injured after the flight’s first officer pushed down on the flight
control stick to avoid an imaginary collision with another aircraft.
"Under the effects of significant sleep inertia (when performance and
situational awareness are degraded immediately after waking up), the first
officer perceived the oncoming aircraft as being on a collision course and
began to descend to avoid it," said the report from Canada’s
Transportation Safety Board.

According the report, the first officer woke up disoriented
after deeply sleeping for 75 minutes, roughly 25 minutes more than the
40-minute maximum nap time allowed by airline regulators. Upon waking, the
first officer was informed by the flight’s other pilot that a U.S. cargo plane
was flying toward them, roughly 1000 feet below their position. The first
officer, mistakenly interpreting the cargo plane as being above them and
descending toward their position, pushed forward on the flight control column.
Following the incident, Air Canada expressed regret that passengers were
injured in the ordeal, saying the airline had made strides to improve flight
crew awareness of fatigue, as well as reinforcing rules for allotted nap
times. 

The Air Canada Pilots Association has been vocal in the past
about the stress and strain associated with night flying and hours of service
laws. Canada’s last hours of service relation change was in 1996, when maximum
hours of service were reduced from 15 to 14 hours. Another contested issue is
the amount of pilots aboard a trans-Atlantic flight: U.S. carriers use three
pilots while Canada operates flights with only two.

This report marks the latest midair incident in which flight
crew negligence
resulted in injuries that could have been avoided. The
incident also highlights the importance of addressing pilot fatigue on the
flight deck.

Read
the full TSB report here.

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