A fatigued Air Canada first officer on a transatlantic flight sent his plane into a dive after mistaking planet Venus for another plane, according to an official report.
14 passengers and 2 crew members were injured after the “confused” and “disorientated” first officer pushed the controls sharply downwards to avoid a US plane that he wrongly thought was on a collision course with the jet.
A report released this week by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has shed light on last January’s incident on the 767 jet – which was half way over the Atlantic en route from Toronto to Zurich, Switzerland at night.
According to the report, the first officer had just woken up after a 75-minute rest – more than the 40-minute maximum permitted by airline regulations – when the captain warned him that there was a U.S. Air Force C-17 in the area.
The first officer – disorientated after falling into a deep sleep – saw a bright object ahead of the plane – which he believed was the planet Venus – and mistook it for the plane, the report read.
The captain corrected him and advised that the plane was in fact “at 12’oclock” and passing in the opposite direction roughly 1,000 feet below them.
“When the FO [first officer] saw the oncoming aircraft, the FO interpreted its position as being above and descending towards them,” the report continued.
The first officer then pushed forward on the controls, forcing the plane to descend 400ft and towards the C-17.
“The captain immediately disconnected the autopilot and pulled back on the control column to regain altitude. It was at this time the oncoming aircraft passed beneath them.”
None of the injured passengers were wearing seat belts, even though the seat belt sign was switched on.
After interviews with the flight crew, the safety board concluded that the crew did not fully understand the risks of tiredness during night flights.
It added that crew misunderstood why controlled rest was limited to 40 minutes – to avoid increasing the risks of sleep inertia (temporary grogginess and disorientation felt when waking up).
“They were aware of the term [sleep inertia] but not how significantly impaired a recently awakened pilot could be,” the report said.
Read the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s full report here