Handling Aircraft Emergencies

Dec 15, 2010

“Mayday” is the internationally-recognized term used by pilots to communicate an emergency situation to the outside world – from the French word, m’aidez (meaning “Help me”). Of course, According to regulations, Nav Canada Air Traffic Controllers and Flight Service Station Specialists must respond to any statement by a pilot indicating that the crew or aircraft is experiencing difficulties and requires assistance. When a pilot declares an emergency, the aviation system responds as quickly as ­possible. The system includes Nav Canada, airports, Canadian Forces’ Search and Rescue (if an ­aircraft goes down), and emergency response services (such as fire, paramedics, police).

Air France Airbus A340 Flight 358 crashed at Toronto's Lester B. Pearson International Airport on August 2, 2005.

Since 1990, there have been 4,282 declared aircraft emergencies in Canada, with the greatest number occurring last year. From 2000 to 2009, there were 738 more emergencies than in the previous decade, a 42% increase. The number of emergencies reached an all-time high of 297 last year; 20 years ago there were 158. Increasing air traffic during the past generation is considered the main reason for the rise.

While aircraft emergencies vary greatly in type, all involve a need for assistance. The help provided depends on the nature of the emergency. A pilot who becomes lost on a flight over unfamiliar terrain may only need Air ­Traffic Services (ATS) to provide VHF Direction Finding to resolve the emergency. The crew of an aircraft on fire needs assistance from Air Traffic Control (ATC) to reach a suitable airport as quickly as possible, and Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) and emergency medical services upon landing.

No situation has tested the emergency response capability of Canada’s aviation system like 9/11. After the Federal Aviation Administration closed U.S. airspace, more than 200 foreign aircraft were diverted to Canadian airports. The coordination operation was unprecedented in scope and involved Transport Canada, Nav Canada, Canadian airport authorities, the Canadian Forces and Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and other agencies. All seven Nav Canada Area Control Centres (ACC’s) and 17 airports were involved in “Operation Yellow Ribbon.” By 6 p.m. on September 11/01 in Canadian airspace, some 1,500 aircraft, carrying 45,000 passengers, had landed without incident.

If a pilot is communicating with ATC and declares an emergency, certain procedures are followed by the controller handling the flight. He or she ascertains what the pilot wants to do, which is usually land at the nearest suitable airport. The controller’s ­priority is to keep the airspace around the aircraft clear so that it can proceed to the destination aerodrome without delay. ATC may hold airplanes on the ground, temporarily vector aircraft off airways (while maintaining separation), and/or use other controlling techniques in response to the situation. The controller notifies a supervisor of the emergency and receives assistance with other ATC duties so the controller can remain focused on helping the aircraft in distress.

Aviation professionals such as pilots and air traffic controllers must be resourceful. On 23 July 1983, the controller handling Air Canada Flight 143 used a makeshift ruler on his radar screen to measure the distance covered by the fuel-starved Boeing 767 as it glided toward Winnipeg. Because there was no electrical power to the aircraft’s transponder, the secondary surveillance radar provided no altitude or groundspeed information to the controller. The Air Canada pilots needed to know how much terrain the aircraft was covering as it lost altitude. Thanks to the measurements taken by the controller and relayed to the pilots, they were able to determine that they would not reach Winnipeg, and the captain decided to glide the 132-ton airplane to the Gimli airfield instead. Despite a high-speed landing and nose gear that collapsed after touchdown, there was no loss of life, and relatively few injuries occurred.

In addition to assistance from air traffic controllers, pilots in emergency situations have received invaluable help from other pilots flying in the same area. In January 2005, a Beechcraft King Air 200 flying over central British Columbia picked up so much ice that it had to descend below the 100-nautical mile safe altitude even though the crew had applied full power. The aircraft was in a power-on stall during the descent due to the ice and was difficult to control. The crew of a Dash 8 flying overhead informed ATC that the weather to the west of the smaller turboprop’s position looked better, and the controller vectored the ice-laden airplane toward that area. The King Air subsequently entered clearer skies, the pilots saw the Kelowna Airport, and landed safely. During the approach, the airplane shed ice as thick as 15 centimeters (6 inches).

Air traffic services communicate not only with the pilot of an aircraft in distress but also with the airport where they intend to land. ATC-airport communication is vital so that ARFF will be waiting near the runway as the aircraft touches down. At smaller airports, there is often no on-site ARFF, so word of the inbound airplane in distress is communicated to the local fire department and other emergency services.

Airport Operations (AO) staff are informed when a pilot has declared an emergency. At larger airports, the supervisor in the control tower contacts the Airport Operations Officer (AOO) in the Airport Operations Centre (AOC) via a direct line. In the event of an aircraft crash, the crash alarm, which is activated by a controller in the tower cab, sounds in the AOC. Whether the emergency is a crash, an unsafe landing gear indication, a passenger experiencing a heart attack, or some other type of critical situation, the airport musters the appropriate resources in response.

Immediately after the AOO has been informed of an emergency by the tower, he or she contacts the Airport Operations Supervisor (AOS), Airside Duty Manager (ADM), and other AO personnel. The AOS takes charge of coordinating the airport’s emergency response from the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). The AOO also contacts the ambulance service, police, fire department, and other agencies as indicated in the specific Emergency Response Plan (ERP), and as directed by the AOS.

While smaller airports usually do not have a control tower, many have a Flight Service Station (FSS). In the event of an aircraft emergency, the FSS Specialist contacts the airport manager and otherwise follows the emergency response protocol established by Nav Canada. At airports with no control tower or FSS, information about an aircraft in distress is passed along by Nav Canada personnel in the regional Flight Information Centre to the local airport ­manager and emergency services. When responding to aircraft emergencies, ATS and airport staff exercise good judgment and draw on their knowledge and experience to make every effort to provide support to the pilot(s).

Nav Canada Area Control Centre in Montreal.

The EOC room is equipped with telephones, radios, and other equipment used to coordinate an airport’s response to an emergency. If it involves an airliner, the ­station manager will come to the EOC to keep the AOS informed of what the air carrier is doing in response to the situation. If the emergency is a bomb threat made against an airline or some other type of ­situation requiring police intervention, officers go to the EOC to coordinate with police units and keep the AOS updated. Aircraft emergencies involving hazardous materials or an unknown substance leaking out of a package in an airliner’s cargo hold, for example, will result in a hazmat team from the local fire department going ‘airside’ (entering the restricted area where ­aircraft manoeuver and park).

Mobile equipment used by airports to respond to aircraft emergencies include radios and cell phones, portable satellite telephones, and an Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) that can be driven to the scene of an aircraft emergency.

The ERCC is usually a modified motorhome or truck containing communications and other equipment. AO staff in the ERCC communicate with the AOS in the EOC. At some Canadian airports, trailers filled with supplies such as blankets and stretchers can be quickly attached to airport vehicles and driven to the site of an emergency. On Sea Island, where the Vancouver International Airport is located, the Canadian Coast Guard has a hovercraft which would be used to respond to an aircraft crash in the tidal flats west of the airfield.

All airports licensed by Transport Canada have an ERP, which serves as the guiding document for different types of emergencies. Nav Canada has also developed ERP’s, which are used in ACC’s, control towers, and FSS’s. Transport Canada recommends that airports carry out a full-scale, simulated emergency at least every three years, and ‘tabletop’ simulated emergencies more frequently. Such exercises ­provide airport and emergency response personnel with invaluable experience in dealing with different types of emergencies.

ARFF personnel train on a regular basis in order to remain proficient at responding to aircraft emergencies. The effectiveness of such training was demonstrated on 2 August 2005 at the Toronto International Airport after an Air France Airbus A340 slid off the end of the runway into a ravine where it burst into flames. While 12 of the 309 on board were seriously injured, no fatalities resulted from the accident that clearly highlighted the role of training during an emergency situation.

Although people who work in civil ­aviation continue to troubleshoot, aircraft emergencies will undoubtedly occur in the future, and Canada’s aviation system – one of the best in the world – will continue to respond with well-trained professionals and modern resources. As the events of 9/11 demonstrated, not all types of emergencies can be foreseen. Regardless, people who work in civil aviation continue to use their expertise, good judgment, and resourcefulness to deal with ­aircraft emergencies in order to make air travel and operations safe.  

Blair Watson is a contributing editor at FrontLine Security magazine.
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