A Canadian probe into the WestJet Boeing 737 that flew astonishingly close to the water on approach to St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport last year, shows the plane was less than three seconds away from hitting the water.
The stunning event, caught on camera by aviation photographer Christine Garner, has been under investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. On Monday it released its final report detailing a list of findings and risks exposed by the near disaster on March 7, 2017.
The flight from Toronto, with 164 people aboard was 63 feet above the Caribbean flying through heavy rain when the proximity warning system triggered an audible alert of “TOO LOW TERRAIN” in the cockpit for the first time, the report says. The captain and first officer, with 14 and 12 and a half thousand hours of flight time respectively, were already struggling with a full plate.
They were “below the 3° descent angle of the standard approach path” after planning an instrument approach and switching to a visual one. The plane had flown through a squall that reduced visibility and caused them to confuse the sight of a hotel on their left, with the airport.
When the view cleared, the pilots were to the left of the approach path and the report says, unable to determine their height above the water but they were still descending. The plane was 40 feet above the water one third of a mile from the runway when the pilots began the go-around.
“I looked out the window and saw we were way too close to the water without seeing any land,” Kyle St. Hilaire a passenger on the flight, told me. “Then, I felt a violent acceleration and an aggressive pitch up, felt like a roller coaster and I’ve grown up on planes.” St. Hilaire said during the ascent the atmosphere in the cabin was tense. Another passenger whose son was on the flight told me, “half the people on the plane were crying.”
WestJet Flight 2652 was the first of two near disasters involving Canadian carriers last year. Three months after the St. Maarten episode, an Air Canada Airbus A-320 lined up on a taxiway instead of the runway as it prepared to land at San Francisco International Airport the night of July 7th. Below the descending airliner were four wide-body international flights waiting for takeoff. The Air Canada jet came within fifty feet of hitting the first airliner in line, and creating a chain reaction collision of historic proportions. The United 787 pilot at the head of the line on the taxiway says on the radio, “Where’s this guy going?”
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating this accident.
In both events, investigators were unable to review the flight deck conversation making it more difficult to understand whether communication, distraction or other factors were at play. The CVRs were not preserved because WestJet and Air Canada determined they did not need to report these almost-accidents to authorities and the planes continued to fly, taping over the event recordings.
The Canadian report does not make any recommendations though it is possible that the NTSB will address the issue when its report is published.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.