K. Joseph Spears

The recent crash of an Air Canada A320 Airbus on final approach to Runway 05 at Halifax Stanfield International Airport (YHZ) has called into question airport emergency response capabilities at the airport, and the larger issue of provision of aids to navigation to strengthen aviation safety. On the day of the incident, March 28, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada was celebrating its 25th anniversary. It was created soon after the 1985 crash of an Arrow Air DC-8 in Gander, Newfoundland, that resulted in the death of 248 U.S. Army soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division.

Questions need to be asked about emergency services at this airport that go beyond the mandate of the Transportation Safety Board investigation. There is an old flying adage which says “any landing you walk away from is a good one”. Applying this logic to AC624 should make us conclude that it was a good landing, as there was no loss of life. That does not mean we should be complacent. Transport Canada has adopted a multimodal safety management regime which was to change the culture with respect to all modes of safety, making risk management a central pillar of that process from both a regulatory and management function. The goal is to take preventative steps so incidents don’t occur.

The airspace over Eastern Canada is no stranger to disastrous incidents. Swiss Air 111 that crashed on September 2, 1998, 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. In the process, the onboard fire overcame the MD-11 aircraft, resulting in the loss of 229 souls and the total loss of the aircraft near Peggy’s Cove. A Boeing 747 cargo plane crashed on the same approach in 2004, with the loss of nine lives. We have seen recently with a variety of recent air crashes, Air France AF477, Malaysian Air MH370 and MH17, Air Asia QZ8501, and most recently, Germanwings 9525, that aircraft incidents can and do occur in the 21st century.

Most Canadians do not realize that Halifax is a major diversion airport for transatlantic flights that travel between North America and northern Europe. The North Atlantic is the world’s busiest oceanic airspace in the world. Nova Scotians are familiar with a sky full of contrails which marks the passage of commercial air traffic on a great circle route across the North Atlantic. At any one time, there may be up to 1,200 passenger aircraft traveling in both directions in Canadian controlled airspace (Gander Oceanic ATC) in the North Atlantic.

Canada has obligations under international law, in particular the various conventions administered by the International Civil Aviation organization (IACO) which is based in Montréal, with respect to accident investigation as well as search and rescue. Halifax’ long runway at 10,500 feet and those at Gander, Newfoundland and Goose Bay, Labrador and Iqaluit, Nunavut, 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 likely 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. Waverley Ground Search and Rescue, headquartered not far from runway 05, which morphed into Halifax Regional Search and Rescue, is one of Canada’s leading and oldest ground search teams. We need to make use of all our skilled paid and unpaid SAR and First Responder professionals, and perform exercises simulating mass casualty aviation incidents around our major airports with the Canadian Armed Forces the lead on aviation SAR. AC624 needs to be a wake-up call for this to happen and integrate safety management into airport management.

It is reasonable to anticipate that aircraft incidents at a Canadian airport or remote crash site will involve passengers being exposed to harsh winter weather or worse, Arctic conditions, for a good portion of the year. Passenger survivability is not limited to Halifax and is a serious issue in our Canadian controlled airspace of 18 million km2 including Gander Oceanic ATC and much of the Arctic, along with possible incidents arising at our airports. We need to examine aviation passenger survivability more closely, and develop the necessary protocols to have equipment available, including ground transportation, 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 AC 624 incident at Halifax provides the catalyst to think about how we can enhance passenger survivability after a crash, with time being of the essence to reduce survivors’ environmental exposure and to speed up access to emergency medical care. 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. We will be a safer and better country for this.

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 developed and delivered the National Marine Investigation course. He has assisted the National Search and Rescue Secretariat on Arctic search and rescue He learned to fly at Halifax International Airport was involved in the startup of Cougar Helicopters. He can be reached at kjs@oceanlawcanada