Hard Landing at YHZ

15 March 2015

The so-called “hard” landing  of an Air Canada A320 Airbus on final approach to Runway 05 at Halifax Stanfield International Airport (YHZ), on March 28th, has called into question airport emergency response capabilities at the airport, and the larger issue of provision of navaids to strengthen international aviation safety.

Ironically, on the day of the flight AC624 incident, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada was celebrating its 25th anniversary. However, the questions that need to be asked about emergency services at this airport go beyond the mandate of the Transportation Safety Board investigation. Applying the old adage “any landing you walk away from is a good one” makes us thankful there was no loss of life. That does not mean we should, but we should not be complacent. The response community needs to look critically at this incident and how it impacts aviation response writ large.

The airspace over Eastern Canada is no stranger to disastrous incidents. In 1998, Swiss Air 111 was in visual range of Halifax International Airport at the time of its declared emergency. The pilots chose to dump fuel over St. Margaret’s Bay, however, the onboard fire overcame the MD-11 aircraft, resulting in the loss of 229 souls as it crashed near Peggy’s Cove. A Boeing 747 cargo plane crashed on the same approach in 2004, with the loss of nine lives. The world has recently experienced a variety of high profile air crashes – Air France AF477, Malaysian Air  MH370 and MH17, Air Asia QZ8501, and Germanwings 9525 – reminding us the 21st century is not immune to major aircraft incidents.

The Halifax airport is a major diversion airport for transatlantic flights between North America and northern Europe, and the North Atlantic is the world’s busiest oceanic airspace in the world. At any one time, there may be up to 1,200 passenger aircraft traveling in Canadian controlled airspace (Gander Oceanic ATC) in the North Atlantic.

Canada has aviation obligations under international law, in particular, the various conventions administered by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation organization (IACO) with respect to accident investigation as well as search and rescue. Halifax, Gander, Newfoundland, Goose Bay, Labrador, Iqaluit, and Nunavut runways are critical components of an international web of diversion airports that are used from time to time when there is an in-flight emergency. We saw that in spades after 9/11. While they are not often used, they are a critical component of international aviation safety.

At Halifax International Airport and other major airports, we need to ensure that state-of-the-art instrument landing systems on all the runways are present and deployed, so that international flights that may be diverted and in a declared state of emergency (which more often than not occurs in bad weather), have every advantage for a safe landing. The south end of runway 05 did not have an instrument landing system.

As for emergency response at Halifax International Airport, had AC 624 gone down in the rough and rocky glaciated terrain of the adjacent Waverley Game Sanctuary, where there are no roads, this would have required a complex search and rescue operation in deep snow using fixed and rotary wing aircraft of the Royal Canadian Air Force and military personnel, along with ground search individuals under the national Search and Rescue program. Halifax Regional Search and Rescue (formerly Waverley Ground Search and Rescue), headquartered not far from runway 05, is one of Canada’s leading and oldest ground search teams.

AC624 should be a wake-up call to integrate safety management into airport management. Such incidents highlight the need to make use of all skilled (paid and unpaid) SAR and First Responder professionals. It is important to perform exercises simulating mass casualty aviation incidents around our major airports, with the Canadian Armed Forces taking the lead on aviation SAR.

It is reasonable to anticipate that aircraft incidents at either airports or remote crash sites in the Northern hemisphere will expose survivors to harsh winter weather or worse, Arctic conditions, depending on the time of year. Passenger survivability is a serious issue that needs to be examined more closely to develop the necessary protocols; to have response equipment, including ground transportation, available; and to minimize passenger exposure to the elements. Better planning needs to be in place to respond to the unthinkable, but possible, especially around airport runways where accidents are most likely to take place.

The Halifax incident provides a lens through which to examine passenger survivability after a crash. Canada should use the AC624 incident to rethink the adoption of state-of-the-art technology to help prevent such accidents and to improve emergency preparedness. It’s all about safety and security.

Joe Spears is a safety consultant, maritime barrister, and Managing Director of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group, West Vancouver, Canada. He has acted as legal counsel and consultant for Transport Canada and has assisted the National Search and Rescue Secretariat on Arctic search and rescue.
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