RCAF flight advisor guides aircraft to a safe landing

On the evening of Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, Cpl Martin Bélair, a flight advisor with the 3 Wing Bagotville, Que., Air Traffic Control Section, was on duty alone in the control tower at the Saguenay-Bagotville airfield. The flight advisory position is held only by experienced and talented aerospace control operators (AC Ops), who are qualified to assume the duties and responsibilities of an air traffic (tower) control officer throughout the evenings and nights at most RCAF wings.

Cpl Martin Bélair, a flight advisor with the 3 Wing Bagotville, Que., Air Traffic Control Section. DND Photo
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Cpl Bélair was preparing to land what he thought would be his last aircraft of the night, an Air Canada Jazz Dash 8, when he noticed on his radar a Boeing 757-200 at 32,000 feet (9,754 metres) above sea level (ASL) over the airport, in descent and squawking code 7700, a code reserved for in-flight emergencies.

He immediately contacted the terminal instrument flight rules (IFR) controller to ask if he had received any information on the emergency aircraft: IcelandAir 688. The terminal controller had no information on the nature of the emergency, nor had he been contacted by the pilot.

A few moments later, Cpl Bélair received a call from the Canadian Air Defence Sector (CADS), which had also noticed the emergency and wanted to know if IcelandAir 688 was planning to land in Bagotville. Cpl Bélair passed on what little information he had before proceeding to land the Air Canada Dash 8, which was now on final for runway 11.

IcelandAir 688 exhibits the damage to a cockpit window that forced the aircraft to make an emergency landing at 3 Wing Bagotville, Que., on Oct. 20, 2018. Roger Gagnon, Agence QMI Photo

At 10:02 p.m., just as Air Canada was landing, Cpl Bélair was contacted by the terminal controller, who advised him that IcelandAir 688 had made contact with him and was on a fast descent to land in Bagotville. However, he still had no concrete information about the nature of the emergency.

At 10:04 p.m., Cpl Bélair activated the crash alarm system to inform all emergency response personnel (firefighters, military police, and wing operations) of the inbound aircraft, and that further information would follow. Firefighters responded quickly and were ready to take their emergency standby positions at 10:06 p.m.

As Cpl Bélair issued instructions to emergency vehicles, he was contacted by the terminal controller, who was ready to pass updated emergency information: the aircraft had 164 people on board, and 194,000 pounds (87,996 kilograms) of fuel; the nature of the emergency was a broken window (a potentially dangerous situation for a pressurized aircraft operating at high altitudes). Cpl Bélair immediately relayed the information to emergency response personnel.

Five minutes later, IcelandAir 688 contacted the tower (Corporal Bélair), advising him that they were prepared to land. Cpl Bélair provided relevant weather information and informed the pilot of the position of the arrestor gear (a cable system for snagging landing aircraft similar to the cables on an aircraft carrier deck, suitable for high-performance jets and therefore unfamiliar to a non-military pilot). Uncertain of the cable positioning (and out of his comfort zone), the IcelandAir pilot requested a detailed explanation; Cpl Bélair patiently explained the system in detail before authorizing IcelandAir 688 to land.

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Passengers board a replacement IcelandAir aircraft at 3 Wing Bagotville, Que., on Oct. 21, 2018, after the one they were travelling in from Orlando, Fla., to Reykjavik, Iceland, developed a serious crack in a window and was forced to make an emergency landing. Sophie Lavoie, Le Quotidien Photo

At 10:15 p.m., IcelandAir 688 landed safely in Bagotville and was escorted to the Saguenay civilian terminal without further incident. Once parked, the fire chief declared the emergency to be secure, at which time Cpl Bélair’s duties and responsibilities with the emergency aircraft were complete. However, his work in the tower would continue for several hours to facilitate the ongoing operation.

Over the next couple of hours, Cpl Bélair became the focus of all communications and coordination for IcelandAir, juggling requests from CADS, Transport Canada, wing operations, the Saguenay terminal, military police, medical services, firefighters and the IcelandAir pilot. IcelandAir’s emergency landing required police surveillance until customs arrived at the airport, transportation of 164 passengers to a local hotel, and multiple debriefs to external agencies.

On the evening of Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, Cpl Bélair demonstrated exceptional job competence and admirable professionalism. He handled all challenges presented to him that night, and brought honour and pride to the AC Op trade and flight advisors, Bagotville air traffic control, and the Canadian Armed Forces.

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