Pilots weren’t aware of snow on runway, report finds

Transportation Safety Board says slush led plane to skid off runway in 2000



Two years ago, two First Air pilots maneuvering a jet through high crosswinds and light snow headed toward runway 35 at the Iqaluit airport. The pilots were told the runway was wet. It wasn’t — it was slushy and snow-covered.

That day, Sept. 22, 2000, Iqaluit was experiencing its first major snow squall of the winter.

The Boeing 727, carrying 52 passengers and seven crew members, landed, slid off the left side of the runway, returned to the runway, then slid to the left again before coming to a stop.

The travellers on Flight 860 — including myself — were frightened but uninjured. The jet suffered only minor damage.

It had been snowing since early that morning, and with a slushy and slippery runway, the shaken passengers questioned whether the plane should have landed in Iqaluit.

Now, two years later, investigators who reviewed the accident say the First Air pilots weren’t given an accurate report of the runway’s condition, nor were they updated when the weather worsened.

The investigators with the Transportation Safety Board say these two factors contributed to the plane slipping off the runway.

“The aircraft was landed by the First Air crew on a runway they thought was bare and wet. In fact, it wasn’t,” David McNair is the investigator in charge of the incident, said in an interview.

Regular updates

Flight 860 departed Ottawa at 8:53 a.m. on Sept. 22 on a regularly scheduled flight to Iqaluit.

During the flight, crew were regularly updated on weather and runway conditions.

But the flight service station never mentioned that light snow was reducing visibility near the airport.

Nor were the pilots aware snow and slush had accumulated on the runway. Even though more snow had fallen while the plane was approaching, neither the airport staff nor the flight service station checked the runway to provide a more accurate picture of its condition.

According to the investigation report, ground crews had been busy all morning keeping the runway clear of slush. But at 11:18, the flight service station requested vehicles leave the runway because the plane’s arrival time had changed.

The field maintenance foreman asked if a notice should be sent to the pilots to tell them they were no longer removing snow from the runway. The flight service station said it wasn’t its responsibility, but that of the airport management. Neither of them immediately issued the notice, and all snow-clearing equipment left the runway.

The Boeing 727 attempted to approach the runway. But with strong crosswinds from the east, the captain had difficulty. He turned the plane southwest and made another attempt. During this time, snow and slush were building up on the runway.

The investigators point out that there was enough time before the plane’s final approach to check runway conditions. If the latest conditions had been reported to the pilots, they would have been better informed to make a decision to land or divert the plane, investigators say.

At 11:57 the pilots radioed to say they were making their final approach to runway 35.

Three minutes later, they were on the radio again, this time saying they were evacuating the plane and needed emergency equipment.

Inside the aircraft, passengers were eerily quiet. They scrambled to their feet when a flight attendant yelled at them to evacuate the plane.

Passengers and crew escaped down the inflatable slides and the wings. They ran away from the plane, up the slush-covered, slippery runway. Some expressed disbelief the plane had even attempted to land.

When the maintenance personnel had checked runway conditions at 10:35, it was bare and wet. Even from the cockpit of the plane, it looked just wet, not snow-covered.

After the accident, when maintenance personnel did another runway check, they found it was covered with a quarter of an inch of slush, or wet snow.

Improving safety

In its report, the Transportation Safety Board concludes that two issues contributed to the cause of the accident:

“The runway service condition report (RSC), which was provided to the crew, did not accurately describe the runway condition at the time of the landing. Consequently, the aircraft was landed in wind and runway conditions that did not permit sufficient lateral control to keep the aircraft on the runway.”

“Flight service station and airport staff did not ensure that the RSC reports were updated and passed to air crew in changing weather conditions.”

The investigation’s conclusions aren’t pointing fingers at anyone, McNair said.

“What we don’t do at the safety board and what the international aviation community asks us not to do is to assign blame or liability,” he said. “What the utility is is making sure that the next time you come to Iqaluit you have a safer ride.”

Even before the safety board issued its report, agencies were already making changes to improve safety.

Following the accident, Nav Canada replaced the antennae at the Iqaluit airport because of interference on their radio frequencies.

First Air is also amending its emergency checklist to make it consistent with Boeing’s procedures for emergency evacuations.

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