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First Air pilots suspended after flying 100s of km off course

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First Air says the pilots of a flight that went hundreds of kilometres off course last month have been suspended with pay until an investigation is complete.

In a statement, the airline said it launched an investigation immediately after learning that a Boeing 737-200 with 19 passengers and four crew members on board went off its planned route last week.

“We have learned that there was no threat to the safety of the passengers and crew on board and the flight landed safely without further incident,” the statement reads.

First Air said it will work closely with the Transportation Safety Board on its review of the incident.

‘Substantially off course’

The Transportation Safety Board said the First Air flight left Rankin Inlet on Monday, March 31, headed for Iqaluit, but instead of flying there, the plane flew northeast.

“It was substantially off course,” said Peter Hildebrand, the regional manager for the TSB in Winnipeg.

Hildebrand said the aircraft was flying on auto-pilot using GPS navigation when the crew noted that they hadn’t been handed off from air traffic control in Edmonton to Montreal. They made a transmission to Montreal, but couldn’t make out the reply.

He said the crew was already reacting to the situation and was taking steps to get back on track when another aircraft relayed a message from Montreal to the flight crew.

“They reset those instruments and proceeded direct to Iqaluit,” Hildebrand said.

Upon arrival in Iqaluit, First Air maintenance crews checked the autopilot flight director and GPS without finding any faults. They cleared the plane to return to Rankin Inlet and then Yellowknife.

‘You don’t want this to be happening’

Hildebrand said there are other navigational tools available to pilots on that route.

“It’s always a concern to us when airplanes are substantially off track, because of a risk to proximity with other aircraft,” said Hildebrand.

“You don’t want this to be happening.”

A plane could also theoretically run out of fuel while correcting its course. In this case, Hildebrand said the plane was carrying enough fuel to be able to reach Happy Valley-GooseBay in Labrador.

First Air is now doing a review to try to find out what happened and why.

One of the things the airline is looking at is how the crew programmed the flight management computers on board.

Hildebrand said the TSB has not launched a formal investigation into the incident, but it will be keeping an eye on First Air’s review.

The investigation may be tough, he added.

“We can’t be sure we’ll be able to recreate all the circumstances that were happening there.”

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