Category Archives: Air Canada’s Tired Pilots



Once again, the pilot fatigue factor has reared up its ugly head in the revelation of an Air Canada incident over one year ago that involved a tired pilot engaging in action that put his aircraft as well as others in danger. The following is an extract from an article in the April 16, 2012 CBC News:

{{A terrifying incident on an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Zurich last year took place because a pilot abruptly pushed the Boeing 767 into a dive shortly after waking up from an approved nap, says a report released today by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board.

The report details what happened on Air Canada Flight 878 several hours after it left Toronto for Zurich on Jan 13, 2011. The report also finds several factors, including pilot fatigue, contributed to the incident that sent seven passengers to hospital in Switzerland.The disruption in the middle of the flight, at night over the Atlantic Ocean, was described by Air Canada at the time as severe turbulence.

Instead, the TSB report says the first officer, who had just woken up from a nap in the cockpit, initially mistook the planet Venus for a U.S. air force C-17 military plane in the vicinity, and later decreased altitude abruptly after being “confused” and believing they were on an “imminent collision course” with another aircraft.

The captain counter-reacted by pulling the plane up. The moves shook the aircraft violently and caused several passengers not wearing their seatbelts in economy class to be thrown up in the air and then slammed into their seats and the aisles of the cabin.

Fourteen passengers and two crew members on board the flight suffered various injuries, and seven were sent to hospital after the plane touched down in Zurich.

Pilots are allowed to take “controlled rests” of up to 40 minutes in the cockpit to improve alertness during critical phases of flight, the TSB says. However, the flight attendant in charge must be alerted and instructed to call the flight deck at a specific time.

The TSB report into Flight 878 said the pilots did not inform the assigned flight attendant that the first officer was going to take a rest.

Canada’s pilot fatigue measures questioned

The report is expected to renew the debate over whether Canada’s regulations governing pilot schedules do enough to prevent pilot fatigue.

Controlled rests

A “controlled rest” is a recommended “operational fatigue countermeasure” for pilots that improves on-the-job performance and alertness through “strategic napping” on the flight deck “to improve crew alertness during critical phases of flight,” according to the Air Canada flight operations manual.

“The rest periods are a maximum of 40 minutes in length (periods to be reviewed prior to resting) and must be completed 30 minutes prior to the top of descent. The in–charge flight attendant must be advised that controlled rest will be taking place and instructed to call the flight deck at a specific time. Upon conclusion of the rest period, unless required due to an abnormal or emergency situation, the awakened pilot should be provided at least 15 minutes without any flight duties to become fully awake before resuming normal duties. An operational briefing shall follow.” Source: Transportation Safety Board

Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick told CBC News that the airline has already taken action to enhance safety in the wake of its preliminary findings, and would study the final report to determine whether additional measures can be brought in.

“We sincerely regret that some of our customers were injured and we have taken measures to prevent a reoccurrence of this type of event and improve safety overall,” Fitzpatrick wrote in an email.

The Air Canada Pilots Association and other unions, representing almost 7,000 pilots, have been calling for Transport Canada to change flight and pilot scheduling regulations.

Under Canadian regulations, pilots can be on duty for 14 hours, or up to 17 hours if there are unforeseen circumstances.

Capt. Barry Wiszniowski, safety chairman of the Air Canada Pilots Association, told CBC News Network that his organization began collecting its own data on pilot fatigue several years ago as part of a public push to get the regulations changed to recognize scientific findings on fatigue.

“I think the problem is that he’s sleeping in the cockpit in the first place,” Wiszniowski said.

“In Canada, we have the worst rules in the planet. We are working with the regulator trying to move forward and bringing our regulations in line so they are based on the science of fatigue.”

3rd pilot in cabin

The TSB report also revealed that a third Air Canada pilot was on board “dead-heading” to Zurich to serve as a relief pilot for the return flight, but was seated in a regular seat so he wouldn’t be paid.

After the captain was informed of the injuries in the cabin, the third pilot was called in to sit on the flight deck to monitor the flight and assist as needed, the report said. The remainder of the flight was described as “uneventful.”

In December, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued new rules aimed at preventing airline pilots from flying while dangerously fatigued.

U.S. airlines flying routes of similar duration to the Toronto-Zurich flight require three pilots on duty, Wiszniowski noted.

“I believe personally that safety trumps politics, commerce and competition, so if you’re doing it on a cost-dollar value, that’s one thing,” he said. “But what more proof do we need that when a pilot operates in a fatigued state there’s risk of an accident? And that’s what we have in this case.”

Air Canada’s Fitzpatrick said the airline has rules for duty days and rest periods that are “more conservative than what Transport Canada requires,” and also requires pilots who feel they are too tired to fly or otherwise not capable of flying safely to report this as part of a “non-punitive system.”]]

The concept of controlled naps in the cockpit is a recent brerakthrough that has been endorsed by most of the European and long-range Flag-Carrier airlines. It is a well-thought out, progressive approach to enance aviation safety. This Air Canada incident was fraught with a bit of an unusual twist, in that the sleeping pilot had been sleeping to long. The “power nap” is effective if it does not exceed 45 minutes. Recent sleep study research has shown light on the importance of shorter naps to recharge the batteries This pilot had been sleeping for 70 minutes and when he rapidly awoke he did not have time to erase the “cobwebs.” Since he was still in the groggy state he misperceived the situation and took evasive action to avoid what he thought was another aircraft, but was actually the planet Venus.

This was not the first time nor will it be the last time that a pilot took evasive action to avoid a heavenly body that had been mis-identified. One of the millions of legendary aviation anecdotes involves a Learjet pilot at about 3:00 am over the Gulf of Mexico. As he broke out of heavy clouds the full moon at 12:00 o’clock high startled him and as the story goes, he immediately did a full barrell roll to avoid the moon.

This blog is prepared by Ace Abbott, the author of The Rogue Aviator: in the back alleys of aviation (