Pilots fired after First Air flight veers off course

Pilots fired after First Air flight veers off course
Two First Air pilots have been fired following an error that took their Boeing 737 over 250 km off course.Photo: File photo.

With the report on the fatal crash of an off-course First Air flight fresh in their minds, company officials moved swiftly last week to fire two pilots who wandered hundreds of kilometres from their destination.

The pilots failed to follow “standard operating procedures designed to eliminate navigational errors,” the company said in a press release that announced the firing after an investigation into the Mar. 31 incident.

Following the release of the report on the August 2011 crash of Flight 6560 at Resolute Bay that killed 12 people, First Air’s executive vice-president Chris Ferris said the airline had “strengthened and become a much safer airline” through revised operating procedures and more in-flight monitoring.

While the captain and first officer on Flight 6560 argued about whether they were on course as they approached Resolute Bay, there was no disagreement aboard Flight 955 after it left Rankin Inlet for Iqaluit, and headed north.

The crew on Flight 955 was relying on auto-pilot using GPS navigation when the crew noticed they hadn’t been handed off from air traffic control in Edmonton to Montreal. Transport Canada said radar picked up the Boeing 737 about 256 km off its planned course, 416 km northwest of Iqaluit.

Air traffic control in Montreal was able to contact Flight 955 after a second plane relayed a message. The pilots reset their course and landed without incident in Iqaluit. Maintenance crews on the ground found no equipment problems, and cleared the plane to continue flying.

First Air officials said the crew of four and 19 passengers were never in danger, though the investigation prompted First Air to reinforce procedures with crews and dispatch staff, and increase monitoring of flights, the company said.

Pilots union ‘deeply disappointed’

Peter Black, chair of the First Air unit of Air Line Pilots Association International, said the union is “deeply disappointed” with the decision to fire the pilots “prior to a complete and thorough investigation of the incident.”

“This rush to judgment has unfairly called into question the expertise and professionalism of a crew with more than 40 years of combined flight experience,” Black said. “We will use all of the union’s resources to investigate this incident and support the crew.”

As part of its investigation into why the plane went off course, First Air said it reviewed flight data and navigation aids on the aircraft, and conducted interviews with the pilots and cabin crew.

“During the interviews, we learned the pilots did not follow our standard operating procedures designed to eliminate navigational errors,” First Air said in a news release.

“We have gone to great lengths to update and strengthen our standard operating procedures to ensure our pilots have the tools they need to fly safely,” the news release said. “We have also increased in-flight oversight using data monitoring tools.”

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