Flight was three seconds from disaster

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IT’S one of the world’s most famous airports, attracting thousands of thrillseekers eager to snap once-in-a-lifetime images of planes coming in for extremely close landings by the beach.

But for passengers on board this flight, the approach to Princess Juliana International Airport at St Maarten became far more hair-raising than usual.

WestJet flight 2652 from Toronto, which had 164 people on board, was hit with a sudden and extreme change in weather conditions and descended too low, ending up just 12 metres from the water before aborting the landing.

That’s according to a new investigation report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, probing the incident, which occurred on March 7 last year.

It cited some incredible videos and photos taken at the time, showing the dramatic moment the Boeing 737-800 came extremely close to disaster and shocked onlookers.

“(The) Canadian probe … shows the plane was less than three seconds away from hitting the water,” aviation writer Christine Negroni said.

According to the report: “The aircraft deviated from the normal descent path … (the) aircraft was 0.30 nautical miles from the runway threshold and had descended to an altitude of 40 feet (12m) above the water. The crew then initiated a missed approach.”

Air safety investigators found that as the plane made its approach the visibility at the airport deteriorated significantly, with heavy rain.

However, air traffic control did not inform the crew of the visibility issue.

“Significant changes in visibility were not communicated to the crew, which allowed them to continue the approach when the visibility was below the minimum required to do so,” the report found.

Additionally, the runway lights were set at a low-intensity, making it difficult to spot and resulting in the pilots confusing a hotel with the airport while conducting a visual approach.

“Among the visual references that remained available, the features of a hotel located to the left of the runway, such as its colour, shape, and location, made it more conspicuous than the runway environment and led the crew to misidentify it as the runway,” the report stated.

“(The pilot flying) advised that he had the runway in sight. He began to roll the aircraft to the left to align it with what he thought was the runway but what was actually the hotel.

“The reduced visibility and conspicuity of the runway environment diminished the crew’s ability to detect that they had misidentified the runway.”

As a result, they fell below the “three-degree descent angle of the standard approach path”.

When the plane came as close as 19m to the water, an alert message sounded saying “too low, terrain”, and the pilots responded by increasing the pitch upwards by 4 degrees. However the plane continued to descend and the alert sounded again.

The crew ended up aborting the approach, performing a go-around one third of a mile away from the runway, and landing 45 minutes later.

The island of St Maarten was severely damaged by Hurricane Irma on September 15 and communication with the Saint Maarten Civil Aviation Authority was lost. As a result, some local air traffic control information was not available to the investigation.

WestJet was quick to brush off the concerns at the time, denying it was a “potential disaster” in a statement.

No injuries or damage to the plane was reported.

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