David Kaminski-Morrow / London

Investigators have criticised the captain of an Embraer EMB-120 Brasilia turboprop after he deliberately allowed the aircraft to descend to just 475ft above water, during a scheduled passenger flight, to highlight a safety point to a trainee first officer.

The French-registered aircraft (F-GFEO) was approaching the Isle of Man off the northwest UK mainland and, at the time of the low-level flight, was heading for 600ft-high terrain only 1nm away.

It had been conducting a shuttle flight from Manchester, with seven passengers and three crew, on 31 March last year. During preparations for approach to runway 08 at Ronaldsway Airport, the captain realised that the aircraft’s instruments were not tuned to the instrument landing system (ILS) frequency but instead to the airport’s VOR frequency.

The captain was training an inexperienced first officer at the time, and deliberately did not point out the error, or retune the ILS instrument to the correct frequency, in order to use the oversight to highlight safety issues.

At a distance of 5.2nm from the runway the captain initiated a descent. Visibility was around 4,000m with scattered cloud at 600ft.

The aircraft continued to descend until it was just 475ft above the surface of the sea. Its primary and secondary radar returns briefly vanished and air traffic controllers, concerned about the aircraft’s height and position relative to high ground, contacted the crew to ask if they had the terrain in sight.

Once satisfied that the first officer had realised the ILS tuning error, the captain executed a climb to bring the turboprop back up to 1,600ft.

“Originally it was considered that the most likely reason for this incident was that the pilots had made a genuine mistake,” says the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB). “However, later in the investigation the commander was insistent that he was fully aware of his actions, wishing to use the mistake as a training point for the first officer.

“It is considered that to knowingly take such action – on a scheduled passenger flight – was highly inappropriate and runs counter to accepted practices.”

The AAIB says that the deliberate deviation potentially endangered the aircraft and “raises concerns” about the training and oversight of the flight crew.

But investigators were unable to made a recommendation to audit the operator, because the company – unidentified in the AAIB report – was sold and renamed, before losing its air operator’s certificate in December last year over “unsafe operations”. The company subsequently ceased trading.

Investigators have studied a number of events during which aircraft have been at risk of colliding with terrain while attempting an approach to the Isle of Man. Previous inquiries highlighted the fact that the island’s main navigation beacon, used during landings, was sited several miles away from the airport.

Although the airport has since installed ILS on runway 08, the glideslope was out of service at the time of this latest incident.

Source: Flight International