Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Is that Venus or another airplane out there?

Just a quick blog post concerning Air Canada flight 878 from Toronto to Zurich that mistook Venus for an oncoming airplane about a year ago, but is just making the news. First, the press has treated this very fairly, or at least the reports that I've seen or read anyway. Normally, our uninformed, quick to react to be the first to report something news media, has treated this objectively. Usually, they're second guessing the cause of an accident as the aircraft is still sliding down a runway headed for disaster or sticking a microphone in the face of a crying passenger as they're loaded into an ambulance. "What can you tell us?" 

 In the case of ABC News, which I rarely watch, they consulted with John Nance, there "go to guy" concerning aviation matters and objectively reported the situation. I wish that other news outlets would follow their lead with an experienced pilot filling in the blanks. To there credit, my tiny ABC affiliate here in Manchester, NH, WMUR calls to ask my opinion when an aviation anomaly occurs in this area. 

Most networks consult doctors, lawyers, politicians and economists to clarify specific matters in those fields, it seems only prudent to follow the same course with regard to aviation concerns. 

Air Canada Boeing 767

I've had several friends not associated with aviation, express their skepticism about this situation. "Come on Rand, how could you possibly think that a distant planet is an approaching jet?"

Air Canada Boeing 777

I understand their dismay, but from personal experience can easily understand how this incident could have occurred.

The moon dead ahead over the North Atlantic from Tel Aviv to New York. 

Out over a dark and desolate North Atlantic and North Pacific I've peered out of my windscreen at both Venus and Pluto and wondered if they were an oncoming airliner in the track system. There is no radar coverage out here so visual contact and TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) backs up the track reporting system. I'll try to illustrate my position with these two aerial moon shots.

According to reports, the FO was just awakening from a nap when the captain advised that they had traffic a thousand feet low at 12 o'clock. Looking out the window and seeing roughly what you see here, the FO thought that they were in immediate danger and reacted. He or she misinterpreted the picture and an abrupt descent was initiated resulting in injuries. 

Did the FO over react? Should he have deferred to the captain and raised the point first? Possibly yes to both questions, but I can easily see how this incident unfolded. A point of light on the horizon, not moving laterally across your windscreen, appears to becoming directly at you. I've written this post not in his/her defense, but merely to point out that this  situation has easily gotten many aviators attention... and will again.

I researched my photo data base again and found what I'd been looking for. Here's a shot of Venus through our windscreen at 33,000 feet. Tell me that that point of light ahead doesn't look like another aircraft with its lights on. I've heard it many times from pilots sitting next to me... "is that Venus or an airplane in front of us?"

Now to another matter; napping in the cockpit. Apparently this is condoned in Canada, but as you know is not tolerated in the US. I agree with the Canadians in this matter. Long haul, back of the clock flying over oceans is both tedious and boring with little stimulation. We're also not allowed extraneous reading material and I've seen pilots pull out an aircraft systems  manual and look through electrical or hydraulic schematics to exercise their brain. 

Sitting for hours on end, looking at instrumentation after conversations have come to an end is mind numbing. When sitting at home working on my computer in the late afternoon, fatigue will set in and it's amazing what a 20 minute cat nap will do to revive both my interest level and cognitive abilities. I suspect that it would do the same in a cockpit prior to a complex  arrival procedure into Paris, Frankfurt or LAX. 

The cockpit of a 747-400 with its exercise yard in the rear.

In order to combat this as well as physical problems that can arise from sitting too long, I make it a habit to get out of my seat to stretch and move about every hour or so. With a 757, 767 and 747 background, I'm fortunate to be flying airplanes with a substantial cockpit to enjoy this freedom. I'm basically adhering to the videos that we used to show passengers concerning exercising in your seat as well as getting up and walking occasionally. Napping in the cockpit is an area that I'd certainly like to see the FAA revisit and reconsider their position.

At both NWA and now at DAL our flight attendants bring up several 1.5 liter bottles of water to help keep us hydrated. Rarely does my bottle have any water remaining at the end of the flight.

Envision yourself sitting here for up to six hours in the middle of the night and trying to maintain a high level of concentration. Good luck!

And lastly, when we give our spiel about keeping your seat belt fastened, even if the sign is extinguished, please heed our advice. This Air Canada situation certainly adds credence to that announcement as does American Airlines flight 980 from Brazil to Miami on 17 April. Don't forget, you're in an aluminum tube 6 or 7 miles above the earth, traveling through  a thin atmosphere at say 80 to 85% of the speed of sound through a jet stream that can whistle right along at 150 mph. Hit a little unstable air and you're a missile within the tube.

As usual, thanks very much for following along and reading my thoughts concerning this matter.



  1. Rand,

    Has anyone ever considered adding the moon, Venus, etc. to the TCAS display? Doubtless, there would be interesting human-factors issues. Maybe it would cause more problems than it would solve. It seems like the aircraft's systems would already have all the necessary information.


  2. Good post Rand!

    First off, you see what appears to be Venus at your 12 o'clock and watch on the TCAS an intruder 1,000 feet below. You get confused and decide to push forward on the yoke to avoid a potential midair after the Captain informs you of the C-17 traffic is below. Remember when one must trust your instruments? How about trust your TCAS and move on. Putting the aircraft in a potential catastrophic situation from no RA or audible threat sounds crazy to me. Thank goodness the CA intervened.


  3. Hi Rand,
    I'll give my little contribution in the same direction. We've had the case last winter. Coming out of Latvia, climbing heading back to Europe above a little bit of russian territory. It was late dusk. So I don't know what we saw, if it was the moon,Venus or a bright star. But an irregular cloud layer topping at about FL320 made the spotlight extremely disturbing. I've put my hand back on the controls, but during about 1 to 2 minutes of the "optical illusion" me and my captain were really confused and quite uncomfortable. Very disturbing thing and no way to clarify the doubt.
    Regarding the TCAS, it's an advisory thing. Just to answer Ryan, I'd say that the TCAS is still limited and is in no way certified to ensure you of every single traffic around is displayed. It shows some traffic that might represent a threat in a short while if it keeps its current trajectory trend constant. Moreover a TCAS is not a primary radar and won't detect some of the military traffic, an aircraft not "transponding' or simply a traffic which it decided not to display.
    Finally, I'd like to say that at those altitudes,it's really hard to be sure of who is at what altitude. Maybe it's myself who is not good enough but I can remember thousands of situations where you see a traffic on TCAS who is at your altitude and when you get visual contact you would bet it is a lot higher/lower. Probably an optical illusion due to low horizon or something like that but it's really not easy to rely on your senses there!

  4. Ryan and Anon2

    Thanks very much for your contributions to this post, your input improves the subject. Since I've been flying internationally, I find that I've put more stock in my TCAS equipment than I ever did flying domestically. It's a great tool, but nothing beats eyeballs outside the window!


  5. Rand

    From reading the way to wrote it - it now makes perfect sense how it can be misinterpreted! I have traveled a lot of long haul flights between the US and Africa - and - you sleep a lot on those flights. But - there have been situations when I've been woken up in the middle of the night on the approach to Dakar, or just plainly woken up from a sleep and seen a light out to the side of the aircraft. I've wondered as well - is that another aircraft - in all the cases - my thought has been - at least the TCAS up front would be warning if it was something else, but - it is still confusing.

    To the point of catnaps - and again, I think of the long haul 13+ hour flights - I know that there are extra crew on board - but - even swapping around - it has to be mind numbing sitting in the sear for hours on end - even if you do have to report the position on VHF every 30 mins or so. I agree with your thoughts - as long as both crew in the cockpit don't nap at the same time!! :)


  6. Hi Mark,

    Nice to have a view from the passenger cabin, thanks. I agree the catnap has to be a highly disciplined activity. What regulators fail to take into consideration (in my opinion) is that most long haul flights depart later in the day, say between 1300 to 1600. A pilots day doesn't start at this time, he or she has been up and active since 0600 or maybe 0700 so by the time we depart on our 13 hour workday, we've been up for half the day. Factor in not only multiple time zone changes, but multiple international dateline crossings and your internal clock doesn't know if its coming or going. Fighting fatigue is one thing during periods of heavy workload when your brain is engaged but fighting heavy eyelids at altitude when little is going on is quite another.



  7. It's always nice to hear from someone who has 'been there' on a subject instead of just reading/hearing from media types who are just trying to gain ratings and not give actual facts.

  8. airlinefan,
    Thanks for your kind comments, it's my goal to portray events as I see them. I also urge readers who enjoy my blog to visit your's at to learn more about airline timetables. After all these are tiny history books written monthly or so concerning an airlines efforts to make money and survive. With the internet though they've all but been replaced but hold a special place for those of us who collect them.


  9. Just discovered your blog, Rand. Great stuff. Enjoy flying in the passenger cabin during your retirement! All the best from an aviation enthusiast from the great white north.