The Heroic Deeds of Pilots on the Flight 236
“Would the lead steward please come to the flight deck… immediately” – is one of those in-flight announcements you hear in plane crash movies and would rather never ever hear in reality. Unfortunately, this is what Air Transat Flight 236 passengers had to hear, as their plane ran out of fuel somewhere across the Atlantic. It was supposed to be a regular flight for Air Transat from Toronto, Canada, to Lisbon, Portugal. The weather was just fine that August evening, and so Flight 236 took off without delays at 00:52 UTC (or 8:52 pm local time). It had 306 people on board, 293 passengers and 13 crew members. Most of the passengers were Canadians excited about their summer vacation in Europe and Portuguese expatriates going to visit their family across the ocean. The flight captain was Robert Piché, a 48 year-old pro with 16,800 hours of flight experience, and his co-pilot was Dirk DeJager, a 28-year-old who had 4,800 flight hours. The Airbus A330-243 they operated was not completely full as it had seats for 362 passengers, and fairly new, with only 2 years of active service. It had two powerful Rolls Royce Trent engines, and, one interesting detail, 4.5 tonnes more fuel than required by regulations when it took off. Nothing really predicted any kind of an emergency, yet, the plane didn’t touch down in Lisbon after 8 hours or so as it normally takes. At 04:38 UTC, the right engine of the aircraft started losing fuel. The pilots didn’t know about it yet.
At 05:03 UTC, after over 4 hours of a totally normal flight, the first alarming message came through. The onboard computer informed the pilots that oil temperature has dropped and oil pressure was higher than normal on engine 2, that same right engine. The experienced pilots believed the message to be a false alarm. They informed the maintenance control center about it but stayed calm because, as the thought, there was no reason for worrying.
At 05:36 UTC another warning came through – this time about fuel imbalance. The pilots, again, thought it was a false alarm and did what the instruction for such situations told them to do. They tried to transfer fuel from the left wing tank to the right wing tank to recover the imbalance. But that didn’t help because the fuel line was already damaged and the aircraft was losing fuel at an alarming speed of 1 gallon per second. As a result, the oil temperature continues to drop, and the oil pressure continued to rise. At this time, the pilots realized something must have gone wrong, after all, and invited the lead steward to the cabin. They asked her to look through one of the passenger windows to see if the fuel was leaking from under the right wing. But the night sky was pitch black, and she couldn’t tell if that was actually happening. You can imagine what was going on in the pilots’ minds at that moment: an emergency landing with a full tank is always a huge risk, but they couldn’t just ignore the warnings and continue with the flight as it would mean an even greater risk.
At 05:45 UTC, the pilots made the decision to divert the plane to the Azores to land it at Lajes Air Base. 3 minutes later, they informed Santa Maria Oceanic air traffic control they had a fuel emergency. It’s a message that informs ground services that an aircraft has less fuel than needed to finish the flight. At 06:13 UTC when the plane was at 39,000 feet and still 170 miles away from Lajes, engine #2 failed completely because of fuel starvation. As scary as it sounds, an Airbus can actually fly on one vehicle, and the pilots were well aware of that, of course. But now as the pilots realized the threat was more than real, they decided to try and save fuel in engine #1 and shut off the transfer pump. The plane on one engine can’t keep to the same altitude as with two of them, so they started gradually descending. And now that they felt like the second engine won’t last either, the pilots sent a distress call to Santa Maria Oceanic traffic control. They call it Mayday in aviation.
Thirteen minutes later and 75 miles away from the base, engine #1 ran out of fuel, as well. When interviewed about that situation later, Captain Piché told the reporters: ”When you don’t have that other engine, sooner or later you’re going to go down, you know”. All that mattered to him was to save the lives of hundreds of passengers and the crew. They only had one option now – to glide for the rest of the distance to the base. Mr. DeJager who was the co-pilot on Flight 236 remembers they were flying as if in a simulator dealing with new problems that arose every minute. That was clearly not a common situation, so they had to take decisions instantly to control it all somehow. The plane lost the main source of electrical power, but there was still the emergency ram air turbine. It only produced enough energy to power 30% of the plane’s systems, and so the flaps, alternate brakes and spoilers all went off. The public address system also shut down, and so co-pilot DeJager had to shout the instructions to the cabin crew to instruct the passengers of what they had to do for maximum possible safety. And as much as the crew wanted to reach the air base, they didn’t completely exclude they would have to land on water and told the passengers to put on life vest for that case. The real panic in the cabin started when the oxygen masks dropped out at 6:31 UTC.
All emergency services were activated on the ground waiting for the plane to land safely. The pilots realized they only had one attempt to save the passengers and touch down safely and 15 to 20 minutes for that task. The fact that they could now see the air base in the distance gave them some extra power and hope. The passengers, meanwhile, were praying to come out of this alive. One of them, who was flying to Lisbon with her husbands, later remembered they grabbed each other’s hands real tight and the only thing they were hoping for was “not to fall in the ocean”.
The aircraft was gliding down on small propellers that gave it minimum hydraulics to be still controllable. The pilots realized it was going way too high and way too fast for safe landing. The captain made one 360 degrees turn and a few “S” turns to get at least somewhat lower. You can only imagine what was going on in the cabin at that time: the worst nightmare of any aerophobe was coming true.
At 06:45 UTC, the plane finally touched ground at the airbase, and it wasn’t exactly a smooth landing. The speed was way above regular landing speed at 230 mph, and even though the pilots used emergency braking, the plane only stopped 7,600 feet from the threshold of a runway that was 10,000 feet long. The anti-skid and brake modulation systems were all off, eight out of 10 wheels locked up and tires started exploding one by one. At this point, as another passenger remembers, some people were applauding to the pilots, and others were sobbing. One thing was common – everyone was so shocked and some people couldn’t even get out of the plane without help because terror made them so week. Believe it or not, the plane with two dead engines and no fuel glided for 75 miles and land safely. No one in the history of aviation ever did it before the crew of Air Transit 236. 14 passengers and two crew members needed some medical help, and two people got seriously injured during the evacuation. But the most important thing was that no one died on that flight!
The pilots were definitely heroes that saved hundreds of lives, but what was also really important after the incident was finding out why it happened and how to prevent that from happening in the future. The Aviation Accidents Prevention and Investigation Department of Portugal together with the Canadian and French authorities started the investigation. It turned out that just five days before the incident, on August 19, 2001, maintenance staff installed a new right engine. It didn’t come with a hydraulic pump, so they decided to take it from a similar engine and attach to the new one. That was, of course, contrary to manufacturers’ instructions. And even though the difference was so insignificant a human eye would probably not notice it, you know what it all led to. There was a leak in the fuel hose, and it could have killed 306 people! When Air Transit admitted their fault, the Canadian government fined them around $250,000, which was the largest fine in the history of Canada as of 2009.
After the aircraft had been repaired a few months after the incident, it resumed flights with Air Transit and was nicknamed “Azores glider”. And, it was still active, now with a different airline, in December 2018. The miracle that happened over the Atlantic thanks to the professionalism of the crew inspired an episode of Canadian TV show Mayday. The episode aired in 2003 and was called “Flying on Empty”. In 2010, a biographical drama about the pilot Robert Piché came out, named Piché: The Landing of a Man.
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