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Wrong runway?


This is a story that Canadian military officials tried desperately to keep under wraps. They were successful for a while - 10 days to be precise - but it, like a good many other stories, leaked out. The most popular way for aircraft to get on the ground in the '50s and '60s when the weather was poor was Ground Control Approach (GCA). An air traffic controller talked the aircraft down by using highly sophisticated radar equipment.

This is a story that Canadian military officials tried desperately to keep under wraps. They were successful for a while - 10 days to be precise - but it, like a good many other stories, leaked out.

The most popular way for aircraft to get on the ground in the '50s and '60s when the weather was poor was Ground Control Approach (GCA). An air traffic controller talked the aircraft down by using highly sophisticated radar equipment.

Gander's first GCA unit, formerly owned and operated by the United States military and code-named Blue Jay, landed at the airport in 1946, compliments of Pan American Air-ways. The Depart-ment of Transport commissioned its own unit in 1959, and Blue Jay was retired. Civilian GCA units were gradually phased out in the '70s when Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) became more reliable. An ILS is independent of ground-based controllers, it also makes life much easier for pilots because it is an automatic function.

An aircraft being brought in for a landing by GCA was vectored by a controller to a point about eight miles from the end of the runway. Another radar system would then be used to guide the aircraft to the runway. The headings on final approach would, of course, closely resemble the runway bearing. In other words, if the aircraft was landing on Runway 32, the final approach headings would probably range somewhere between 310 and 330 degrees, depending on the wind directions, and a few more variables. If the aircraft was landing on the opposite end (Runway 14), it necessarily follows that the final headings would be close to 140 degrees. That Gander runway is now 13/31.

The Royal Canadian Air Force had GCA units at a few of their military bases. Summerside, P.E.I., being one such base. The civilians (Department of Transport) had no favourites. If the prime minister, or the president of a foreign country was on board, the on-duty GCA controller did the approach. The RCAF didn't necessarily follow that system.

It was Oct. 5, 1964, and Queen Elizabeth was coming to Canada to attend commemoration of 1864 meetings at Charlottetown and QuÉbec. The aircraft was scheduled to make its first stop at Summerside. The RCAF picked an officer who had talked down 10,000 aircraft - the most experienced GCA controller on the base - to handle the queen's plane. The weather was excellent and there was absolutely no need for GCA radar, however, the approach was arranged with the aircraft captain's concurrence.

One of the reasons the GCA approach was arranged was because CBC Television had been given permission to televise the approach. The captain had been briefed on the plan to televise the event all across Canada.

Picture this GCA officer. He would be on national TV and if he did something wrong he, well, you get the picture. Just to be sure that he wouldn't forget certain mandatory transmissions he made notes - big mistake. This guy had done 10,000 approaches and quite obviously didn't need anything on paper. His notes included remarks about Runway 06.

After he had made his notes, the wind changed and the captain was told that he would be landing on Runway 24 instead of runway 06. The GCA officer set up his GCA for Runway 24.

A fellow controller vectored the aircraft to a point approximately eight miles from the end of Runway 24, and the GCA officer took control for the final approach. The GCA controller established communications on another frequency and then, as usual, said, "do not acknowledge any further transmissions." The procedure then is for the controller to keep his microphone open and to keep transmitting until the aircraft is on the ground.

The CBC cameras were running and practically everyone in Canada was watching and listening. Part of the initial transmission went something like this, "VC7510, seven and a half miles from the end of the runway, turn left to zero six zero." Now, right away, the captain knew the GCA officer was giving him headings for Runway 06. The weather was perfect, he could see Runway 24 straight ahead, Canada was watching, no need for embarrassments. At that point, he could have used an emergency transmitter and said something like this: "Summerside, I'm on final for Runway 24 and you are giving me headings for Runway 06."

Very few who were watching and listening knew there was anything wrong. A fellow controller heard "zero six zero" and immediately knew what was happening. He watched the radarscope to see what the queen's aircraft would do; it kept coming in; he grimly smiled and said nothing. There was no point.

The aircraft landed, taxied in, the captain didn't say anything about the incorrect headings. The CBC cameras stopped rolling and the crew quickly moved out. One of the controllers tersely whispered to the GCA controller, "The aircraft landed on Runway 24!"

On Oct. 15, the headline in a major newspaper shouted: ROYAL JET LANDED WRONG WAY!

"As a result, the royal plane landed west-to-east while the control tower was giving instructions for an east-to-west landing. Sources stressed in the now-it-can-be-told account of the incident that the Queen was in no danger because the weather was clear and the pilot was able to carry on"

The newspaper got it wrong. The aircraft did not land the wrong way. It landed on Runway 24 as it was supposed to do with the GCA controller giving headings that were wrong - 180 degrees wrong.

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