No one is immune from misperceptions: Pilot mistakes Venus for aircraft

Sleepy Air Canada pilot thought Venus was a plane | Reuters.

A sleepy Air Canada pilot first mistook the planet Venus for an aircraft, and then sent his airliner diving toward the Atlantic to prevent an imaginary collision with another plane, an official report said on Monday.

The incident occurred at night on board a Boeing 767 twin engine passenger plane flying from Toronto to Zurich in Switzerland with 95 passengers and eight crew.

The report said the first officer had just woken up, disoriented, from a long nap, when he learned from the pilot that a U.S. cargo plane was flying toward them.

“The FO (First Officer) initially mistook the planet Venus for an aircraft but the captain advised again that the target was at the 12 o’clock position (straight ahead) and 1,000 feet below,” said the report.

“When the FO saw the oncoming aircraft, the FO interpreted its position as being above and descending towards them. The FO reacted to the perceived imminent collision by pushing forward on the control column,” the report continued.

The safety board said the crew did not fully understand the risks of tiredness during night flights.

Tip: Strange Times

Venus. WHAT a troublemaker.

Have you SEEN it in the sky these past few months? It’s impossible to miss. Venus is so commonly mistaken as a mystery light or UFO. Now, we see even a trained professional showing that everyone can mess up on occasion under certain conditions. No one is immune from making perception mistakes. Not pilots, not police, not doctors, not scientists. We all make mistakes. Remember that the next time tells you the witness was “credible” or a trained observer.

More from CNN.

UPDATE (18-Apr-2012): Just a clarification though, he initially mistook Venus as an aircraft. The reason why he dove was a misinterpretation of the actual aircraft coming at them, it appears. See the report here.

  4 comments for “No one is immune from misperceptions: Pilot mistakes Venus for aircraft

  1. Eduardo
    April 18, 2012 at 1:13 PM

    Totally agree, no one is immune from misperceptions. I am a former airline pilot. Flew jets for just over thirty years and have seen stars and planets be mistaken for aircraft even by the most experienced pilots. At mid-northern latitudes, the star Canopus (second brightest star in the night sky) is easily mistaken with an aircraft, due to its “twinkling” and its color switching caused by its low altitude and the atmosphere’s refraction. Been there and done that, but, in the case at hand, I am a bit doubtful. The reports mention Venus as the culprit, but according to my star charts at hand, Venus were nowhere near to be seen; it was UNDER the horizon, to appear AFTER the sun had come up. These guys were flying in an eastward direction, at night. I don’t think it was Venus (I’m also an amateur astronomer, but, hey, I can always be wrong) and it seems to me that those who reported this incident, authorities included, have been subjected to a different kind of “misperception”, namely the lack of corroboration. In the end, we ALL make mistakes, that’s for sure.

  2. April 18, 2012 at 1:29 PM

    Interesting. What a mess. It appears this story got very muddled.

    Here is Bad Astronomer’s take on it.

  3. Chew
    April 18, 2012 at 4:02 PM

    The Canadian report gives the position and time of the event: 55 N 029 W, 0155 Eastern Standard Time 15 Jan 2011. Venus was bearing 125° True, 10° altitude.

  4. Eduardo
    April 19, 2012 at 2:23 AM

    Well, I’ve done some checking (and re-checking) and Venus was definitely NOT above the horizon. Whatever it was that provoked the F/O’s reaction, was not our sister planet. My best (somewhat educated) guess is that he was still kind of groggy after the nap, heard the captain’s comments on the traffic, saw some light ahead and, being disoriented, misinterpreted all those clues. Bringing only two pilots in long-hauls, especially at certain hours of the day is NOT a good policy. Sometimes it seems that companies and regulators forget that pilots are just human,and prone to err.

    By the way, regarding Venus’ position for that night and place, here’s the info:
    Right Ascension: 22h 15m 31s
    Declination: −12° 30.0′
    Altitude: −39 degrees
    Azimuth: 132 degrees
    Position relative to horizon: Set

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