Pilots trained to be unflappable with unforeseen conditions: retired pilot

MONTREAL – Poor weather may unnerve passengers, but pilots are trained to be unflappable in the face of unforeseen challenges, says a retired international pilot.

Benoit Gauthier said pilots are typically highly self-confident people who don’t take undue risks or let doubt creep into their decision-making.

“If you start to doubt your own performance you shouldn’t be there in the first place,” said Benoit Gauthier, who retired five years ago after a 37-year career with a major global airline.

He said pilots must prepare for whatever situation may surface and be prepared to change course if conditions warrant.

Safety is the driving force followed by passenger comfort. Pilots don’t face pressure from large international carriers to stick to schedules, he added.

Gauthier, 65, was speaking several days after an Air Canada plane crashed at the Halifax Airport. The Airbus A320 was flying from Toronto on Sunday when it touched down 335 metres short of the runway and skidded on its belly for another 335 metres before coming to a stop. All 133 passengers and five crew on board survived, although 25 people were sent to hospital.

The cause of the crash is under investigation. The Halifax area was under a snowfall warning at the time. The pilots circled the airport before concluding the conditions were suitable for landing.

While he doesn’t want to speculate on what caused the landing to go so wrong, Gauthier said the incident must have left the pilots feeling “pretty bad.”

He said pilots routinely check for weather conditions at the destination but can never really know with certainty what may arise. They follow a detailed check list about 30 minutes before landing, giving them an opportunity to divert if conditions aren’t right.

In many cases, they use the aircraft’s auto landing capabilities to guide them along a gentle slope to the runway.

“You are thinking about what you’re doing and in the back of your mind you know damn well that you have to be prepared for something that can happen and react to it,” Gauthier said in an interview.

He said landings can be accomplished in all kinds of conditions but there is a limit to what pilots will do.

“You don’t purposefully fly in severe turbulence. It’s bad enough if you get caught in it at high altitude, which is something that’s happened probably to most of us.”

Although he never faced a crash-landing during his long career, Gauthier said severe decompression on a mid-Atlantic flight in 2003 caused the release of oxygen masks and prompted him to make a sudden and quick descent. In another incident, strong winds forced him to abort a landing in New York and return to Montreal for refuelling.

“It’s part of the reality of flying airplanes,” he added. “Planes are built to sustain quite a bit of roughness and…until we start flying airplanes without pilots, there will always be a human factor involved.”