Pilot Hailed as A Hero becomes A Zero

[Air Transat Flight 236]

Switching to today’s ETOPS era, with twin-engine aircraft allowed to fly far from possible landing places, we have an instance where an airliner ran out of fuel over the Atlantic 80 miles from the nearest landing place: a U.S. military airfield on an island in the Azores.

Reaching it was one thing; adjusting height and speed so as not to overshoot or undershoot was another.

A paper used the glib hero-to-zero headline to describe 48-year old French-Canadian Captain Piché’s fall from grace after gaining instant fame for successfully landing his ultra-modern Airbus 330 that had ran out of fuel in mid-Atlantic.

The nearest possible landing place was a U.S. air force base on an island in the Portuguese Azores 80 miles away. Carefully nursing his aircraft, he managed to glide there, and come in at 400 M.P.H. rather than risk falling out of the sky by attempting an extra circuit to lose more height and speed.

With no air brakes or flaps, and only the landing gear to slow him, our “hero” raised the nose to decrease the sink rate and increase forward resistance. Hitting hard near the threshold, he burst eight tires and skidded to a halt almost three quarters of the way down the runway. Waiting fire services quickly ensured the sparks resulting from friction between exposed metal wheel rims and the runway did not start a fire, which was unlikely in view of the empty un-ruptured fuel tanks.

All on board evacuated in less than 90 seconds thanks to the excellent work of the cabin crew, who were accused of panicking by some passengers for shouting too loudly—the airline said they had to shout to ensure everyone heard them. Only 12 passengers sustained injuries in the course of the evacuation, and those were minor.

On returning to Canada and being showered with praise, Piché obliquely replied to a journalist, I don’t consider myself a hero, Sir. I could have done without this. This probably rightly conveyed his feeling of just having done his job and having been lucky. However, it perhaps implied his worry that details of his prison sentence in the U.S. for allegedly smuggling marihuana in a light plane in his younger days would leak out.

Before readers jump to conclusions regarding the captain’s fittingness to be a captain, they should note that in applying for a job with the airline, he did not hide that fact. Indeed, in an interview quite some time after his great feat, he claimed the experience of facing death several times as the only French-speaking inmate in an American jail was what had given him the fortitude to make the successful landing after enduring the stress of the long glide.

Investigations subsequently showed the underlying cause of the incident was faulty maintenance by the airline. However, had Piché and his copilot aggravated the situation by poor judgment? Were they largely responsible for their own misfortune? Alternatively, had the sophisticated computer systems and displays on the aircraft been at fault?

The Canadian authorities’ imposition of a $250,000 fine on Transat and the reduction of their ETOPS rating to a maximum diversion time of only 90 minutes attest to the seriousness of the maintenance lapses.

  • On finding metal filings in the oil, engineers had temporarily installed the only replacement engine Rolls Royce had available on site for loan in such situations—one that happened to be a slightly older version and one not equipped with a fuel pump. With no pump, they decided to use the one fitted to their own more recent engine that they were removing, despite the concern expressed by one member of the team.
  • The airliner had crossed the Atlantic 13 times since the change to the older model engine without anyone realizing that using parts designed for the newer engine on the older version would allow the fuel line to chafe. On that 14th crossing, the fuel line ruptured and broke. The fuel kept pouring out of the wing and even though Captain Piché asked a crewmember to check, they were unable to see it in the darkness.

[i] Explanations of technical terms, such as ETOPS, can be found in THE FLYING DICTIONARY, Christopher Bartlett, OpenHatch Books.

[ii] University of Utah uses this phrase in study project literature.

[iii] A number of accounts give the impression the tires burst because of the force of the impact. Actually, they burst because the anti-locking system was not functioning and with the wheels locked by the brakes, the tires just skidded over the runway without rotating.

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Key words: Piche, Air Canada Flight 236, hero,