Sleeping pilot

Heard about the Air Canada jet that dropped so fast over the Atlantic Ocean, its terrified passengers thought they were going to die?

It’s a crazy story. On January 13th last year, an Air Canada Boeing 767, flight 878, was flying overnight from Toronto to Zurich. The cabin was dark and peaceful. Many of the 95 passengers were sleeping. The plane was 35,000 feet (10,688 metres) above sea level. It was 0155 in the morning (1:55 a.m.).

Suddenly the plane plummeted. It rapidly dropped 120 metres towards the ocean. Then the plane abruptly lurched upwards, climbing 240 metres. Passengers were thrown from their seats, catapulted towards the ceiling fixtures, and struck by arm rests and various objects flying around the cabin.

14 passengers and two flight attendants suffered soft tissue injuries like bruises and cuts. None of the injured had been wearing seatbelts. It was over and done with in 46 seconds. Nobody in business class was displaced or injured.

The pilot apologized. Turbulence was the supposed cause. The pilots later claimed they’d turned on the seatbelt sign 40 minutes beforehand, in anticipation of turbulent weather. But they admitted they had not made an announcement instructing passengers to fasten their seatbelts.

Some passengers received small settlements for their injuries. A pregnant woman from Banff was paid $3,500 to cover medical bills and time off work.

For 15 months after the flight, Air Canada stood by the ‘turbulence’ story.

However, turns out that this could/might/maybe/kind of/sort of/possibly/allegedly be A Big Fat Lie.

It’s now entirely allegedly possible that the only turbulence was in the groggy mind of a sleepy co-pilot.

Last month, a Transportation Safety Board of Canada released a ‘Pitch Excursion’ report. The report found that the co-pilot had actually just woken from a nap. He was ‘confused and disoriented’ because he thought the planet Venus was an approaching aircraft.

So he overrode the autopilot and put the plane into a dive to avoid the planet Venus.

Unfortunately there was an actual plane about 300 meters below the Air Canada jet. In his daze, the co-pilot thought the second plane was going to crash into his jet. So he yanked on the joystick, sending his plane soaring back up. That’s when the captain, who apparently wasn’t sleeping, took control and stabilized the plane.

Sounds like a scene from the comedy film Airplane!

The passengers aren’t laughing, though. This Monday they launched a class action lawsuit against Air Canada, seeking $20 million in general and punitive damages. They’re basically alleging that Air Canada has been making a cover-up.

“The passengers are pissed off that they appear to have been lied to by Air Canada,” said lawyer Darcy Merkur, according to the Vancouver Sun.

“They were told that this was turbulence and now they find out it wasn’t turbulence at all.”

Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Air Canada, said the airline believes the lawsuit has ‘no merit’ and would defend itself ‘accordingly.’”
I’m curious to see how this court case shakes out. Will Air Canada duck and swerve to avoid colliding with the Vengeful Venus of Class Action Lawsuits? Or will they apologize and pay for allegedly covering up this sleepy human error?

Either way, I can’t help but think about all the other mid-flight disasters that Air Canada has explained away before.

So here at last is:


Disastrous incident #4:

Loud explosion in cockpit

Air Canada’s Excuse:


What really happened:

Co-pilot woke up, was frightened by celestial body. He thought the man in the Moon was a terrorist, so he triggered his own ejection seat.

Disastrous incident #3:

An Air Canada flight attendant spills coffee on me, burning my hand and forearm

Air Canada’s excuse:


What really happened:

Flight attendant woke up suddenly, was frightened by my freckles because they were spelling out angry, confusing sentences.

Disastrous incident #2:

Plane jiggles and lurches. Banging and shouting in the locked cockpit, as if people pitted together in life-or-death struggle. Flight attendants tense.

Air Canada’s Excuse:


What really happened:

Co-pilot woke up with night terrors. Thought his pilot was demon snake. Took off his shoe and started slapping pilot “in his purple fanged face.” Fortunately, pilot had seen this behavior before, so fired tranquilizer dart into co-pilot’s neck. Flight resumed as normal.

Disastrous incident #1:

Cabin is dark. Overnight flight. Toddler near front of plane will not stop crying. Suddenly there’s a loud SMACK sound. Then plane drops, then sounds of an angry, desperate scuffle. Plane plummets 500 metres, then lurches up again, 1,000 metres in 12 seconds. Passengers vomit, scream. Baby never stops crying.

Air Canada’s Excuse:


What really allegedly happened:

Travolta pilot

John Travolta was the guest pilot. Co-pilot woke up from nap to see Mr. Travolta’s trousers undone and his hand on co-pilot’s leg. Pilot demanded special massage. Co-pilot refused. Pilot insisted, aggressively grabbing at his pants. Co-pilot fought back. Struggle ensued. Pilot eventually gave up but said co-pilot would never get famous with that attitude.

— Ken Hegan

BING: what is airplane turbulence?

Read all of Ken’s MSN travel posts here and follow Ken to victory on Twitter

Sources: The Vancouver Sun, CTV, Transportation Safety Board of Canada, The Smoking Gun, Reuters

Photos: Monika Wisniewska (sleeping pilot) and James Croucher/Newspix / Rex Features (John Travolta)