Former governor-general almost lost in horrific aviation accident

From a Globe & Mail interview with the former Governor-General of Canada, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson:

G&M: Any scary flying experiences?

AC:  I once remember flying in a plane from Ottawa and we were in a thunderstorm and we tried to land and we couldn’t and we were just a few feet from the ground when we started to go up again. I’ve been told by people who know about airplanes and about flying that this is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to you.

— Sandy Farran, “Executive class: Adrienne Clarkson“.  Globe & Mail October 17th, 2007.

No, I’m afraid it’s not.  These people you’ve talked to, who “know about airplanes and flying”, are capital-i Idiots.

Many, many things can cause a pilot to abort a landing a few feet off the deck.  Perhaps the weather conditions are below the RVR (runway visual range) minima specified for that runway.  Perhaps the runway is obstructed—by rain or snow, debris, a ground vehicle, or a previous arrival which may still be on the runway.  Perhaps the pilot has floated too far down the runway and realises there is not enough room left to stop.  In all cases, the safer course of action is to execute a missed approach and avoid whatever runway conditions the pilot deems unsafe.

Missed approaches, incidentally, are thoroughly, entirely routine.  So routine, in fact, that every runway in the country has a specific missed approach procedure published on its approach plates.  Even the ones way up in the high arctic only visited a couple times a year by Canadian Forces aircraft.  A pilot that executes a missed approach is not considered a “bad” pilot, or an inexperienced pilot.  It happens to everyone at all skill levels, often due to circumstances beyond their control—like say, weather.  I guarantee you that every pilot alive today has executed a missed approach.  Low-time student pilots are taught how to identify situations in which you may wish to abort your landing attempt; it’s not that dangerous.

CNE3_Rwy07 For example, to the left I have copied the missed approach procedure for Bearskin Lake, a small 3500-foot gravel strip in northwestern Ontario.  Click on it to see a larger image.  I have shaded the missed approach information in red.   A low-traffic gravel strip in the middle of nowhere still has a specific set of procedures to execute in case the pilot aborts the approach.  And they are printed on the approach chart the pilot will be referring to while flying down to the runway.  How about that.

More importantly, if a pilot is a dozen feet from the ground but, in the interests of flight safety, aborts the landing, the most dangerous thing that could have happened is for your pilot to continue to plunk his or her airplane down on the runway in spite of their better judgment.

As far as I’m concerned the most dangerous thing that can happen is severe structural/mechanical failure, where any decision the aircrew makes will have absolutely no effect on the fatal outcome.   Thinking of El Al Flight 1862China Airlines Flight 358 and China Airlines Flight 611 in particular.  Would you rather ride an aircraft with critically damaged control surfaces 3 miles down to the ground, or have your pilot abort the approach in a fully functional aircraft and try again?

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3 Responses
  1. That happened to me on my flight back to Toronto — we were approaching, and then we went up, all of a sudden, as though we were taking off.
    Very foggy night, and it turns out that another plane hadn’t cleared the runway.
    Slightly unsettling, and we had to circle ’round again, but I never feared for my life.

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    I had one of those at Pearson too. We were arriving 20 minutes early, but after the go-around and a significant hold over the lake, we were 20 minutes late. Which made me late for a golf game on a neighbouring course. C’est la vie.
    Wasn’t too worried about my life but I was thinking my golf buddy on the ground (who was picking me up at the airport) would be pissed at the 20-minute delay.
    If you ever plane-watch at Pearson (or any other busy airport) for a half-hour or longer, you are pretty well guaranteed to see a missed approach… due to the fast pace a lot of arrivals seem to be sluggish getting their rides off the frackin’ runway.

  3. I remember a fun landing in Paris, when a crosswind had the plane rocking through what seemed to be a 20 degree arc. The pilot tried to correct it but we aborted just about 20 feet from the ground. I love that sudden surge of acceleration!