Did a pilot really drop a plane into a nosedive to avoid Venus?

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April 18 2012 10:30 AM

Did a pilot really drop a plane into a nosedive to avoid Venus?

I fly a lot, and sometimes get the sneaky suspicion that the airline isn't always telling me everything I need to know about why the plane is delayed (assuming they don't want to say "A doohickey fell off mid-flight"), why there's turbulence ("We're flying through an active hurricane"), or why they're out of food ("The rabid badgers that broke loose in first class ate all the honey-roasted peanuts").

But what was allegedly first claimed to be "severe turbulence" on an Air Canada flight in January 2011 turned out to be something a wee bit more scary: the First Officer (FO) woke up from a nap, and thought he saw an approaching Air Force jet, so he plunged the plane into a dive. The Captain then took over and pulled the plane up, resulting in a violent ride for the passengers.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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The thing here is that a lot of folks are reporting that the FO mistook Venus for the oncoming airplane, which is why he took the plane into the nosedive. For example, Reuters, CNN, and the NY Post all imply or outright say that.

However, I don't think that's the case, or it certainly isn't that clear. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada issued a report, and while it mentions Venus, it doesn't look like that was the immediate cause of the incident:

The FO initially mistook the planet Venus for an aircraft but the captain advised again that the target was at the 12 o'clock position and 1000 feet below. The captain of ACA878 and the oncoming aircraft crew flashed their landing lights. The FO continued to scan visually for the aircraft. When the FO saw the oncoming aircraft, the FO interpreted its position as being above and descending towards them. The FO reacted to the perceived imminent collision by pushing forward on the control column.

[Emphasis mine.]

Note how it says the First Officer initially saw Venus, but then continued to look around until he saw the oncoming plane. At that point, for whatever reason, he misinterpreted the position of the plane and took his own aircraft into a dive.

We do know that the FO had been napping just before this incident -- which is allowed -- but his nap lasted 75 minutes, far more than the 40 minutes allowed by the rules. Also, he had said he was "not feeling altogether well". I've taken naps that are too long, and it can be disorienting, even after being awake a few minutes. It's entirely possible he got the position of Venus mixed up with the the lights from the oncoming plane, but it's not as cut and dried as some reports are putting it.

Mind you, Venus gets extremely bright. If you got outside after sunset in the next few weeks you'll see it, shining like a laser in the western sky. It's so bright it gets mistaken for a UFO all the time (Jupiter does too; see Related Posts below). Even pilots have thought that many times in the past.

Don't lose sight of the real story here. The problem is that protocols to avoid the panic dive were not being followed, which is why the flight got so rough several passengers had to be hospitalized. The dive and subsequent pitch readjustment took 46 seconds to play out according to the TSB report. One passenger said she thought "... the plane had hit a mountain or another aircraft."

Yikes.

The other thing not mentioned in the story is why Air Canada supposedly claimed it was just turbulence, and whether they got reprimanded for making this statement. I can understand it if it were said on the flight itself -- honestly, the passengers (including me if I had been there) would've rioted if they had said the FO woke up from a nap and possibly tried to avoid hitting a planet a hundred million kilometers away. But if that were an official statement after the fact, harumph. Air Canada has responded to the TSB report, but that part isn't mentioned.

So, to be clear: Venus played a role here, but it's not clear if it was the immediate and direct cause of the FO pitching the plane down. It sounds more to me like it added to the confusion at least. I'll note that while people who aren't familiar with the sky report Venus as a UFO all the time, that doesn't necessarily play into this story either. The FO might be quite familiar with Venus, but in his groggy and "not altogether well" state he simply didn't recognize it. From the TSB report, we don't really know.

Tip o' the port wing to John McPhee.



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