TSB issues stern warning after several pilots report lack of de-icing at remote airports

An image taken at the scene of a deadly plane crash in December 2017 near Fond-du-Lac. Photo courtesy Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

Recommendations to improve de-icing equipment and regulation compliance come as part of investigation into Fond du Lac crash

Investigators from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) are calling for urgent action from the federal government, regional airlines and airport authorities after learning that several remote locations don’t have adequate de-icing equipment.

The TSB released a pair of recommendations Friday. The recommendations came out of the investigation into last year’s deadly crash in Fond du Lac.

The investigation is ongoing, but investigators learned that due to inadequate equipment, the plane was not de-iced before takeoff, despite the fact that one of the co-pilots noticed there was ice on the aircraft.

Ice buildup impacts an airplane’s aerodynamics. That, in turn, results in harder to control planes. Several fatal aircraft collisions in Canada and around the world have been linked to ice buildup. With many remote airports lacking proper de-icing equipment, as a TSB questionnaire found,

The first recommendation calls on the Department of Transport to collaborate with air operators and airport authorities to identify locations where there is inadequate de-icing and anti-icing equipment, and then take urgent action to ensure proper equipment is available.

The second recommendation calls on the Department of transport and air operations to increase compliance with existing federal regulations to reduce the likelihood of aircraft taking off with ice on critical surfaces, such as the wings, control surfaces, propellers or parts of the fuselage.

On December 13, 2017, an ATR 42-320 aircraft operated by West Wind Aviation left the airport for Stony Rapids with 22 passengers and crew on board. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crash-landed into trees and terrain less than a mile west of the runway. All 25 occupants were injured, and one of the injured passengers subsequently died.

There was some de-icing equipment at the airport, consisting of two stepladders, a hand-held spray wand and another, small handheld spray system.

Neither of the ladders was tall enough to examine or de-ice the plane’s wing or horizontal stabilizers, and even combining the de-icing fluid of West Wind and another operator, there wouldn’t be enough to de-ice an ATR-42.

The TSB found that while regulations and standards exist, they are ineffective without oversight or without operating conditions that would allow for de-icing of aircraft.

The determine how wide-spread the issue is, the TSB sent out a questionnaire to commercial pilots operating at remote northern operators. Responses were received from 655 pilots.

“Responses indicate that, at remote northern airports in Canada, aircraft … frequently take off with contaminated critical surfaces,” The TSB found.

“Some respondents reported negative consequences, such as degraded takeoff and climb performance or difficulty controlling the aircraft.”

The lack of de-icing wasn’t restricted to one type of plane. Respondents reported seeing transport jets and turboprops, commuter turboprops and air taxi take off with their critical surfaces contaminated with snow, frost or ice.

“Many questionnaire respondents answered that they rarely have access to adequate inspection equipment and de-icing equipment,” the TSB wrote.

“The unavailability of adequate equipment is a significant underlying factor that prevents pilots from being able to conduct a proper pre-flight inspection for contaminants and from de-icing an aircraft that is contaminated. Only 37 per cent of respondents reported that they are able to have their aircraft de-iced effectively at remote airports.

“The combined probability and severity of this safety deficiency pose a high risk to transportation safety.”

Speaking at a news conference in Saskatoon Friday, members of the TSB were stern in their warnings of the risk caused by flying with ice buildup on an aircraft.

“When the equipment necessary to enable crews to follow (regulations banning flight with ice buildup) is not available, not only does that needlessly increase the risk, it effectively removes a defence that was put in place to operate safely and to save lives,” said David Ross, the lead investigator in the Fond du Lac crash.

“How often does this happen? The short answer is far too often. The risk, frankly, is substantial. These recommendations need to be addressed now.”

TSB chair Kathy Ross was similarly firm. While Transport Canada now has 90 days to come up with a response to the recommendations, she urged airlines and airport authorities to act now.

“It’s important … pilots are not put in the untenable situation of having to consider taking off with contaminates surfaces,” she said.

‘As pilots across the country have told us, you can’t use what you don’t have. There’s nothing stopping the operators and airports today from starting to look at what their needs are.”

Fox said the recommendations are particularly important for residents of fly-in communities like Fond du Lac that rely heavily on air transport as their only way to get in or out.

“These communities do rely on air transport,” she said.

“Accidents like what happened n Fond du Lac raises concern on the part of people who need that service in their communities. Revealing these results… are certainly going to raise a lot of questions. It’s very important they can exercise a voice.”

West Wind already making improvements

Since last year’s collision, West Wind Aviation has already been taking steps to ensure what happened in Fond du Lac doesn’t happen again.

According to the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, CEO Michael Rodyniuk took over the company in October. He said all of the airline’s northern destinations now have enhanced de-icing equipment.

According to Rodyniuk, the company spent millions on enhanced de-icing equipment at the northern airports it serves, including Fond du Lac.

“It’s been a wholesale overhaul. We’ve literally gone back to the drawing board, taken a whiteboard approach, we have new equipment in our main bases,” he said.

Survivors of the crash have filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the airline was negligent, used a runway that was too short for the size and weight of the plane and did not have proper de-icing equipment. Those allegations have not been proven in court.