Pilots in mid-air collision over South Shore mall didn't respect altitude rules, TSB finds

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Pilots in mid-air collision over South Shore mall didn't respect altitude rules, TSB finds

Pilots in mid-air collision over South Shore mall didn't respect altitude rules, TSB finds

Two young Cessna pilots who crashed mid-air above a South Shore shopping centre last year near the Saint-Hubert, Que., airport weren't respecting altitude restrictions, an investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada has found.

The TSB's report into the collision that killed a 21-year-old pilot and seriously injured the other pilot, 23, was released Wednesday. The crash occurred on March 17, 2017.

The report found that both pilots inadvertently shifted their altitude — one going above the limit and one going below — as they approached each other. 

Neither saw the other in time.

The 23-year-old's plane "descended 100 feet below his altitude restriction of 1,600 feet while attempting to troubleshoot a radio-communication issue."

The 21-year-old's plane climbed 400 feet above his 1,100 feet restrictions, but why that happened remains unclear.

"Maybe he climbed as a habit, but we do not know," said Josée Prud'homme, president of Cargair Flight Academy. Both pilots were international students flying solo while undergoing training with Cargair out of the Saint-Hubert airport.

Prud'homme said that during the 21-year-old's four previous flights, air traffic control asked him to increase his altitude to 2,000 feet.

His plane crashed into the parking lot, while the other landed on the roof of Promenades Saint-Bruno. 

Since the crash, Nav Canada, which runs Canada's civil air navigation system, has mandated that altitudes are made more consistent while flying from an airport to a training area.

'It was surreal'

That day in March was one Georges Sawaya won't soon forget. 

One of the owners of La Belle et La Boeuf in Promenades St-Bruno, he heard a loud crash just outside his business.

"Some people were right next to it as it happened," said Sawaya. "I rushed out to see if we could assist, but it was just beyond that."

The site of the crash was closed to the public for three days. Now, he says, it's just an incredible story he hopes does not repeat itself.

"Life is back to normal," he said. "The staff has moved past it."

The TSB says communications problems may also have contributed to the crash, including the pilots' ability to understand English directives from air traffic control.

"The investigation also found that the density and variety of operations conducted at the Saint-Hubert Airport increase the complexity of air traffic control," the TSB said in a news release for the report. 

"The varying levels of flying skills and language proficiency among the student pilots of the four local flying schools add to this complexity."

It also says a lack of on-board alerting systems may have played a role.

With files from CBC reporter Sudha Krishnan.