Thursday, August 25, 2011

B737 Down In Resolute Bay

On August 20th a Boeing 737-200 operated by First Air made a radio call "eight kilometres from the airport" the Resolute Bay airport, then crashed ten minutes later. I don't know the content of the radio call but as they don't say it was a distress call, I assume it was a routine call to airport radio. Eight kilometres is five miles, the DME of the final approach fix for the GNSS or LOC/DME approach. The plates at the link are outdated and I don't have a northern region CAP with me to check the current procedures, but there is no reason to assume they have changed.

A reporter's retelling of an eyewitness report describes the airplane coming into view not aligned with the runway and then starting a missed approach. Generally eyewitness accounts aren't worth much because humans aren't actually very good at seeing unexpected events, or at remembering what they saw, but in a community like that, the airplanes are life and everyone would be familiar with what the airplane looks and sounds like coming into land, so the report of a deviation from normal may be accurate. Here's another account, from one of the three survivors, Gabrielle Pelky, a seven year old girl, confirming that everything seemed normal. The Vancouver Sun story says Gabrielle literally walked away from the crash, but an Edmonton story says she had a broken leg, so there's either some inaccuracy here or one damned tough little girl. It's hard to imagine

An odd part of the story is that the emergency response was the best it could possibly have been, because the accident happened during a joint exercise of the military and emergency services, aimed at improving emergency response in remote communities such as Resolute Bay, response to disasters such as a cruise ship sinking or air crash. I wonder if there was a moment of confusion when a real emergency cropped up. Southern readers may find it odd that there were only fifteen people aboard a B737, but the First Air aircraft would have been configured as a combi, with cargo not only below deck as on most passenger airlines, but filling most of what would otherwise be the passenger cabin, with a bulkhead delineating the seating section.

Chances are every single resident of Resolute Bay directly knew or was related to someone on that airplane, and that almost everyone in Nunavut and the NWT knows someone who knew someone. Twelve people out of the entire Nunavut population of 33,000 is, percentage-wise equivalent to 2900 out of eight million residents of New York. Uh, that number is uncomfortably close to matching that of a disaster New York has experienced. I was going to switch to another state, but I think I'll let it stand. To the population of Nunavut, this is a major tragedy. I'm sure it's a horrible thing for First Air, too. It's a community unto itself, as large as many of the destinations it serves. My heart goes out to everyone touched by the loss.

There may have been an e-mail correspondent who was going to send something for this blog on the airplane, and the complete passenger list hasn't yet been released. I'll let you know in the next couple of weeks either by posting information on his research or telling you what it was going to be about.

Update: Here's a good newsreel from the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and here's a passenger list with descriptions of the people. The researcher who died was not my arctic researcher. There's an eerie number of first-time air travellers,nervous flyers and and air crash survivors among the passengers. Remember the old joke about the passengers' belief in physics being required to sustain flight?

2nd Update: Reader Sarah linked this excellent article, showing me wrong in several respects, demonstrating the futility of speculating on these things. Commenters on the linked article continue to speculate nevertheless.


Sarah said...

Very sorry to hear about this crash. Your perspective on the numbers, relative to NYC brings some perspective on how this affects the community.

I could not click on your approach link for some reason, but there is more information, including a plate here, It is there reported they were on the ILS 35T approach, not clear if it was circle-to-land or straight in. I would assume op specs would normally frown on circle-to-land in such an operation.

Aviatrix said...

Excellent link, Sarah. I'll add it to the blog entry for people who don't read comments.

townmouse said...

Who are these people who don't read comments? It's part of the fun of a blog like this as far as I'm concerned...

Don't know anything about the crash, but adrenaline can do funny things, including allowing people to walk on broken legs. A friend of mine came off his bike, smashed his kneecap (they had to fish it out of his calf later), and got up and ran after the car who'd knocked him off. He'd probably make it out of a plane no problem

nec Timide said...

As far as the Canadian Forces switching from training mode to operational mode, it was probably almost entirely seemless. There is an old saying in military circles train the way you fight, fight the way you train. I had the rare privilage to assist 424 Squadron during a week long major training exercise. During the week a number of actual SAR tasks came up and were interleaved into the training evolutions.

I don't doubt that there may have been some varying levels of adrenaline for some, but the CF has protocols for clearly indicating changes from training to operations and back. Like watching any group of consummate professionals work, it is something to behold. It is a shame that we only get to see the best of soldiers under tragic circumstances. But I'm glad that events conspired to place them where they were so badly needed this time.

coreydotcom said...

question from the accountant here: what does the T stand for in runway 35T? I know the basic R and L but the T has proven to be beyond my knowledge. thanks.

Aviatrix said...

T stands for True. Runway headings and airways are in true in the North, because magnetic directions are too unreliable.

coreydotcom said...

hmmmm i get it.

hypothetical question: i'm piloting an aircraft very far up north with no GPS or fancy bells and whistles and i'm in cruise. all of a sudden someone says to me: you have to land at CXYZ which is 10 miles to your true north (or would they say due north? i don't know). How in the hell am I supposed to find true north? Do I apply some sort of magnetic deviation factor to my compass (I vaguely recall "declination" or "inclination" or something like that from my science days) and set that course? Or should I have been plotting my progress on a good ol' map since I am super far up North and I am a good pilot and am aware of such things?

Aviatrix said...

corey: The law requires you to have a means of determining true north when you are flying in the region of compass unreliability. The traditional way to do this is celestial navigation at night, sun true angle tables in the day, and copious prayer during overcast. The modern way is to use a GPS.

You should know about both variation and deviation with respect to your magnetic compass, but its unreliability in the North precludes you finding true north by adding or subtracting anything from its reading.

Captain Dave said...

I am amazed that I had not heard about this before I read this entry. Usually large airplane crash news spreads rapidly on the Line. Thanks... Might have to make you a primary news source.

WST said...

Reading The Aviation Herald post by Sarah, it says on it's 3rd paragraph:
"First Air reported the aircraft had last radio contact about 5nm from the airport and crashed about 10 minutes later".

I work in an area where I see all kind of final approaches to the city's airport. Some of them turn just in the 'front porch' beaming their lights over my truck at 4 am, others -most of them-, are aligned with the runway more than 10kms, like planes from Lufthansa, or the UPS Airbus that turns over this town north of the airport. Seeing this, I can tell that 5 nm is a distance to do in no time by a plane aligned with the runway, so my question is:
Why it took 10 minutes to crash, even though his last call was 5 nm away?

Was he doing a circuit? Had he decided to go around again?
Why wasn't he aligned with the runway?
Maybe I don't know much about aviation and I am asking too many s.....silly questions.

Aviatrix said...

You're right, WST. Even the slowest airplane in the world doesn't take ten minutes to go five miles. I assumed that the call five miles out was made outbound on a full procedure approach, sort of like if the freeway goes within five miles of your house, but you have to go ten miles on to the nearest exit, then make your way back to your house on another road.

But I don't know what happened either. It's possible that they were circling to find a way through the fog.

Rhonda said...

Farther down the avherald article it says that a listener on frequency said the last they heard from the plane was 3NM final.

As always, we'll have to wait for the black box analysis. Since the surviving passenger said impact came without warning, I would guess the pilots didn't even have enough time between realizing something was wrong and the crash to say "brace!" on the PA.

Rhonda said...

Although according to the Globe and Mail article, the local MLA heard a mayday call on the radio, but initially thought somebody was confused about the simulated crash training that was going on. Makes me wonder who placed the mayday call: can somebody who sees a crash do a mayday on behalf of a downed plane, or would that be a different radio call entirely?

Aviatrix said...

I've never heard anyone say "Mayday" for real, ever. Only, "uh yeah we're going to declare an emergency ..."

Sarah said...

Ok, here's my unfounded speculation. The CVR will tell the tale, but all we know for sure is they were 2 miles off the runway abeam midfield and hit the hills.

1) They were mistakenly approaching the YRB VOR thinking they were on the localizer. This seems unlikely. It's a mistake I would make, but not two professional crew. I would think it hard to confuse IYRB with IRB (assuming Canadian ILS id as I-xxx like in the US ). And they'd have to somehow ignore the fact there would be no glide slope.

2) They were trying to circle to land from the ILS 35T approach to land into the 10 knot wind. They'd have to be 500' below the circle to land minimums to hit terrain. This seems unlikely.

3) There was some kind of transient fault in the ILS or in their receivers leading them to be off course.

I know what I'd guess today, but it's only a guess.

coreydotcom said...

thank you for the explanation!