It was a dark and stormy night…

ISSN 2369-873X

08 June 2017
Posted by Doug McEwen

On March 28, 2015, after spending the day with my wife at the Toronto One of a Kind Show & Sale,  we had planned for a quiet evening. Long before I planned on getting up, the cell phone rang. It was the on-call investigator, and I could tell right away this was going to be something serious. The caller indicated that an Air Canada aircraft with 133 passengers on board had a hard landing and was off the side of the runway at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport.

I immediately got in contact with one of the Dartmouth investigators to follow up. It wasn't long before I received additional information, specifically that the aircraft had collided with terrain, then continued airborne through an antenna array. The aircraft had then bounced twice before sliding along the runway.

My Sunday's plans had just dramatically changed. The cell phone was in constant use. I was working with the Dartmouth investigators from Toronto to get things underway, despite a nasty snow storm, and making arrangements to get my wife and myself back to Halifax as soon as possible.

When we arrived home on the following day, there was more than a meter of snow in my driveway. I had to leave my car on the road. Fortunately no one had a camera nearby, because the sight of my wife and I dragging our suitcases over the top of the snowdrifts must have looked pretty funny.

About 3 hours later, I arrived at the Halifax airport with my bag in hand, ready to jump in with both feet. After meeting the team and being brought up to speed, I went out to the aircraft. By this time the snowstorm had subsided and the sun was shining. But those that were there the day before assured me that the storm was definitely nasty, and that just driving from the Dartmouth office took hours.

The investigation was a team effort, involving investigators and specialists from across the country, and their effort is what led to finding out what happened and why. First, we determined that throughout the flight from Toronto, the pilots had been discussing the weather conditions and what that would mean for the landing. Visibility was a concern.

The investigation also found that as the aircraft was in a holding pattern near Halifax Airport, the tower controller advised that visibility had improved to the required minimum for landing. The crew then decided to continue with the approach. They requested that the runway lights be set to maximum setting. However, the controller was pre-occupied with other duties and never adjusted the lights.

The crew then set the autopilot to fly at the appropriate constant descent flight path angle. But during the approach, wind variations caused the aircraft's actual flight path to diverge from the selected flight path. The pilots did not notice that the aircraft had moved away from where it needed to be because as per their training, they did not monitor the vertical component of their approach.

When the aircraft was at the minimum descent altitude, just over a mile from the runway threshold, the crew could see some approach lights, which they interpreted as sufficient to proceed. They continued the approach, expecting the lights to become more visible as they got closer to the runway. It was only in the last few seconds of the flight that the crew realized they were too far back and too low. They initiated a go-around but the aircraft struck the terrain 740 feet short of the runway, bounced twice, and skidded part-way down the runway.

Passengers evacuated the aircraft on emergency slides. Some were wearing shorts and sandals, and they were now waiting on the runway in the snowstorm. Twenty-five people were injured and had to be taken to hospital.

Retrospectively, as is the case for most accidents, several factors lined-up to result in this collision with terrain. Take out one of the contributing factors and we possibly would not be talking about this today.

Being part of this investigation and working with a dedicated team of experts was a fulfilling experience. Of course, no one ever hopes for accidents to happen. But when they do, we, at the TSB, want to be there to shed some light on the factors that contributed to the occurrence, and to reduce the risk of it happening again. This is how we strive to make Canadian skies safer. Because everyone deserves to be safe.

Image of Doug McEwen

Doug McEwen is a Senior Technical Investigator in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He has been involved in many accident investigations, both small and large, including Swissair, MK Airlines, Cougar Helicopters, and Air Canada's collision with terrain at the Halifax airport. Mr. McEwen started with the TSB in 1998 at the Vancouver regional office. In 2001, he transferred to the TSB's laboratory and worked there for about eight years before relocating to the Dartmouth office. Before joining the TSB, Mr. McEwen worked as an aircraft maintenance engineer on a variety of aircraft that had been modified for fighting forest fires. Mr. McEwen has six grandchildren (yes, all from one family) which keep him and his wife busy, and he enjoys building custom furniture from reclaimed wood.

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