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Failure to communicate: Air Canada pilot blames switched radio channel for close call in San Francisco

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Thursday, January 11, 2018 – Page A1

The pilot of an Air Canada plane that landed at San Francisco International Airport despite repeated orders to abort the touchdown told U.S. investigators the crew could not hear the commands because the cockpit radio's frequency had been changed, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The Airbus 320 from Montreal was within 2.1 kilometres of touching down at about 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 22 when an air-traffic controller ordered the plane to abandon the landing because another passenger jet had not cleared the runway. When the Air Canada crew failed to respond, the controller repeated the "go around" command six times.

The tower then took the unusual step of flashing a red light at the cockpit in a final attempt to wave it off, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said.

The orders went unheeded. After the pilot landed safely, he told the tower he had radio trouble.

The air-traffic controller replied, "That's pretty evident," according to a recording of the communications from

In a postincident interview, the pilot told FAA investigators he received clearance to land before the radio frequency was changed, but did not say who switched the channel or why, according to FAA reports obtained by The Globe in a Freedom of Information request.

"After receiving landing clearance from SFO [San Francisco] tower, the VHF radio frequency was changed to another frequency. The runway was clear and in sight so I landed," the pilot said. "After clearing the runway is when we discovered that the tower did try to communicate with us but we did not hear any communications until on the ground."

The FAA said the pilot's failure to monitor radio communications is a violation of federal aviation regulations, but "appears to not have been intentional."

The incident report said the other plane was clear of the runway when Air Canada landed, but it was not clear if "all parts" of the plane had crossed the holding line on the taxiway.

The close call is the second recent incident involving Air Canada passenger jets making nighttime landings at San Francisco and raises questions about Canada's rules governing pilot flight time and fatigue.

On July 7, an Air Canada pilot nearly landed on a taxiway occupied by four other planes.

The incident, which could have involved hundreds of passengers and crew members, was averted when the Air Canada crew aborted the landing 59 feet above the ground, flying over the jets waiting to take off just before midnight local time.

Speaking about the Oct. 22 incident, retired pilot John Cox speculated fatigue could have made the pilot less aware the normally busy radio had gone silent.

A crew member likely switched the console-mounted radio to another frequency by mistake, said Mr. Cox, who flew for 48 years. "It's likely that they never knew they didn't have radio communication," he said.

Air Canada declined to comment.

The Vancouver-based pilot's name, age and other identifying information were blacked out in the FAA documents obtained by The Globe.

According to the report, the pilot had flown a total of 26,000 hours, including 7,500 in the Airbus model involved in the incident.

The pilot told investigators it was his first flight of the day and he had been on duty for 10 hours with eight or more hours of rest in the previous 24 hours.

He said he believed fatigue played no role in the incident and he was not feeling rushed, according to the report.

Airline industry experts say Canada's rules on pilot flight duty times are more lax than those of the United States, Europe and many other countries. Canadian pilots, who adhere to Canadian rules when they fly internationally, are allowed to be at the controls more hours in a month and are entitled to less rest between flying than pilots in most other countries.

Canadian rules permit flight crews to be at work for 14 hours, compared with nine to 13 or 14 hours for pilots in the United States and Europe.

"When you compare Canada's rule to the U.S., Europe and others, there's probably only two or three countries with more lax rules than us," said Dan Adamus, the president of the Canadian branch of the Air Line Pilots Association.

Clinton Marquardt, an industry fatigue consultant and a former Transportation Safety Board investigator, said pilots' working conditions make them vulnerable to fatigue and their abilities to operate safely can suffer.

"One of the challenges pilots have is they're expected to sleep at all different times during the day. And their body takes time to adjust to new sleep periods," Mr. Marquardt said.

The Canadian government has proposed new rules for pilot flight duty and rest, noting "the current Canadian regulatory regime does not reflect the scientific principles and knowledge on fatigue that were only discovered and understood in the last few decades," according to a Transport Canada summary of the proposed rules.

The final version of the new rules is expected to be issued early in 2018.

Large passenger airlines will have 12 months to comply.

Pilot groups say the new rules are not tough enough and place airlines' financial interests ahead of passenger and crew safety.

"The good news is we're on our way to a new rule. The bad news is it's not as robust as it should be," Mr. Adamus of the Air Line Pilots Association said.

Under the proposed rules, flight duty time, which includes pre- and postflight work, is reduced from 14 hours to a range of nine to 13 hours, depending on the time of day the pilot started work.

Yearly flight time is capped at 1,000 hours, down from 1,200 hours.

However, the Air Canada pilots union says the new rules will allow pilots whose long-range flights begin in the late afternoon or evening to fly for more hours than their U.S. counterparts.

Mr. Adamus, a pilot with Jazz Aviation, said the new rules are silent on a pilot's maximum daily flight time, compared with the United States' eight or nine hours or the 81/2 hours recommended by NASA.

Risk of collision or "loss of separation" accounted for 139 of 833 incidents in Canada in 2016, according to Canada's Transportation Safety Board. TSB data show landings account for the vast majority of aircraft accidents in Canada between 2007 and 2016.

Since the July near miss, the FAA has changed the rules governing night landings at San Francisco. When an adjacent runway is closed, pilots must use instruments or satellite-based systems to land, and cannot rely solely on a visual approach.

Additionally, the FAA now requires two air-traffic controllers be on duty during busy nighttime periods.

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