Overreaction by pilot sent Airbus passengers tumbling

EDMONTON — An Air Canada pilot fighting unexpected turbulence overreacted on the rudder, turning a tense situation into a white-knuckle hell ride for 83 passengers, slamming them into the ceiling and windows, says a report released Tuesday.

EDMONTON — An Air Canada pilot fighting unexpected turbulence overreacted on the rudder, turning a tense situation into a white-knuckle hell ride for 83 passengers, slamming them into the ceiling and windows, says a report released Tuesday.

Nine passengers were injured when Air Canada Flight 190, from Victoria to Toronto, began violently plunging and rotating side to side over Washington state on Jan. 10, 2008. It had to make an emergency landing in Calgary.

“When the aircraft began the uncontrolled rolls, the pilot disengaged the autopilot and attempted to control the aircraft manually. In doing so, some of the control inputs — including rudder use — were not totally appropriate,” said John Pearson, a senior investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.

The board’s final report noted the passengers and five crew members were flying east around 7 a.m. on the Airbus A319 — a medium-sized jet with a maximum capacity of 120.

The aircraft was cruising in clear skies above the clouds at 10,500 metres. Soaring above it, about 15 kilometres ahead, was a United Airlines Boeing 747, one of the big machines of the sky.

In the cabin, the seatbelt sign was turned off and a few of the bleary-eyed passengers got up and moved around or went to the bathroom. Flight attendants began rolling the food and drink carts down the aisle.

Up front, the pilot got the OK to climb 600 metres — to the same height as the Boeing plane — after flight control determined the two were far enough apart to avoid the Air Canada jet getting caught in the massive wind vortices trailing off the 747.

It wasn’t far enough. Instead, the Airbus flew right up and into the teeth of the swirling air. Over the next 18 seconds, all hell broke loose.

The spinning air slammed down on the right wing, dipping it a mild five degrees. The autopilot kicked in to correct. Whoosh! The left wing dipped more precariously, about 28 degrees.

Warning lights and alarms began going off in the cockpit. The pilot, said Pearson, wasn’t expecting wake turbulence and instead believed the whole onboard computer system had gone haywire.

He had never faced such a crisis before, said the report. He had a split second to make a decision. He disengaged the autopilot, grabbed the controls and started working the rudder foot pedals to level the craft.

“He’s doing the best he can with what he has and the information available to him,” said Pearson.

Unfortunately, by going manual, he took things bad to a whole lot worse.

Wham, wham, wham, wham. The pilot slammed the massive rudder back and forth in quick succession a total of four times, causing the plane to pitch wildly from side to side, the wings dipping to a stomach-churning 55 degrees at one point. The craft plunged over 300 metres.

The G-forces hammered passengers into walls and windows. There were cuts and bruises. One woman dislocated a finger. Others were burned by hot coffee. Armrests were bent 60 degrees by white-knucklers. Two people inside the bathrooms at the back were thrown violently against the walls and ceiling. One was seriously hurt.

Both carts flew up into the ceiling. A laptop computer slammed into an overhead bin so hard it left a paint streak.

A flight attendant, blood dripping into her eyes from a cut across her forehead, scrambled to help people. In the cockpit, a bin containing flight manuals broke open, sending texts airborne, a heavy hardcover grazing the pilot’s head.

Everyone was screaming and yelling. Passenger Nisha Gill later told reporters she thought she and her two-year-old daughter were goners.

The pilot managed to level the plane off but, given that he thought it might be a systems problem, he made the emergency landing in Calgary. The nine passengers and two crew members were released from hospital shortly afterward.

Air Canada spokesman Angela Mah said Tuesday the company has already implemented changes following the board’s recommendations.

“For example, we have enhanced pilot training and made adjustments to our (traffic alert and collision) systems to reduce possible wake turbulence encounters,” said Mah.

Stephen Guetta, speaking for the 3,300-member Air Canada Pilots Association, added, “We’ve all worked together to advance the training on wake turbulence issues. That’s one of the lessons learned here. There was a desire by the pilots’ group for more information.”

The board has also advised Transport Canada that changes may be needed to reduce the risk of planes, particularly smaller ones, getting caught in the wake turbulence of other craft.

Guetta said the pilots’ main concern is making the distances safer.

He noted the vertical distances between planes has been cut in half in recent years, to 300 metres, to accommodate more planes in the same area. The answer, he said, may lie in expanding how far apart they are horizontally.

Guetta said those who would criticize the pilot should remember what he was dealing with and in what time frame.

“You had the turbulence, then loss of control and then you had system failure (alarms) within the cockpit,” he said. “The combination of those three in that context don’t lead you to believe you’re dealing with wake turbulence.”