A330 Glides Eighty Miles Over Atlantic to an Island (Azores, 2001)

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 eighty miles from the nearest landing place, a US 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 quite another.

Air Transat Flight 236, August 24, 2001

The nearest possible landing place was a US air force base on an island in the Azores eighty miles away.

Carefully nursing his Airbus A330, captain Piché managed to glide there and come in at four hundred miles per hour 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 with only the landing gear to slow him, he raised the nose to decrease the sink rate and increase forward resistance.

Hitting hard near the threshold, he burst eight tires—because the antilocking system was not functioning and with the wheels locked by the brakes, the tires just skidded over the runway without rotating. The aircraft with its terrified passengers shuddered to a halt almost three-quarters of the way down the runway. Waiting fire service appliances 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, unruptured fuel tanks and their being empty, though there would have been hydraulic fluid.

All on board evacuated in less than ninety seconds thanks to the excellent work of the cabin crew, whom some passengers later accused of panicking, as they were shouting so loudly—the airline retorted that the crew had to shout to ensure everyone heard them. Only twelve passengers sustained injuries in the course of the evacuation, and those were minor. Some were vomiting beside the runway after the tension of the long glide.

On Piché’s return to Canada, people showered praise on him, but to one journalist he obliquely replied, “I don’t consider myself a hero, sir. I could have done without this.” This probably rightly conveyed his sentiment of just having done his job and having been lucky but could also have intimated his fear that details of his prison sentence in the United States for allegedly smuggling marijuana in a light plane in his younger days would leak out.

Before readers jump to conclusions regarding his suitability 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.