Pilot Mistakes Venus for Oncoming Aircraft, Sends Plane Into Nosedive

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We’d never expect a pilot to be a professional astronomer, but it’s not outlandish to hope that he could tell the difference between a planet and another plane.

But a fatigued and groggy Air Canada co-pilot mistook Venus for an oncoming aircraft and slammed the control stick forward, sending the plane into a momentary dive that injured 16 passengers. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada released a report Monday about the January 2011 incident that found “sleep inertia” to blame for the co-pilot’s misjudgment.

The flight’s first officer caused the incident after waking up from a nap on the long-haul flight from Toronto to Zurich, Switzerland. His snooze was permitted under a sanctioned procedure known as “controlled rest,” which is said to improve a pilot’s alertness and performance during overnight flights. But while only supposed to sleep for 40 minutes, the first officer dozed off for 75 minutes, sending him into a presumably deep sleep.

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The first officer awoke as the captain, who had been controlling the plane, noted an approaching U.S. Air Force jet 1,000 feet below. But groggy and not yet fully alert, the first officer saw a light above the plane and thought it was the Air Force aircraft descending toward them. In reality, it was the planet Venus – though that realization came only after he sent the Boeing 767 into a 400-foot nosedive. “Under the effects of sleep inertia, the first officer perceived the oncoming aircraft to be on a collision course and pushed forward on the control column,” the report notes.

Fourteen passengers and two crew members, none of whom were wearing their seatbelts despite the seatbelt sign being illuminated, were launched out of their seats and hit their heads on the ceiling. Seconds later, they were slammed to the floor as the captain pulled back on the control stick to regain altitude. Many injuries were minor, but when the flight landed safely in Zurich, seven passengers sought medical attention at local hospitals.

But the first officer was unable to sleep off the incident – the investigation lasted more than a year. Air Canada is considering implementing better rest policies for pilots.

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