Oct. 2, 2005. 01:00 AM
At least once a day, the image � unbidden, unwanted, indelible � seizes the mind's eye of Philippe Lacaille
Like an endless and cruel loop, the Aurora resident and his wife and his two youngest children are again aboard Air France Flight 358, bound from Paris to Toronto. It is, once more, August 2. Nothing changes.
After a tumultuous descent, during which the Airbus A340 heaves and rattles and groans through a non-stop maelstrom of lightning, rain and wind, they are finally approaching the runway.
But something is very, very wrong. Lacaille can feel the wind pushing the plane forward, feel the pilot fighting to keep the plane in line with the runway.
The landing gear makes sudden contact with the wet asphalt. Hurtling forward, Lacaille senses the right wing tip dip to the ground. Then he feels the right engine explode and the right wing go back up. There's an enormous boom and a sound � fwoompf
� "like a deep subwoofer kind of thing with an enormous glow on the right side."
Lacaille's 14-year-old daughter Emilie
is sitting across the aisle from the rest of the family. Lacaille looks over to see her face illuminated with that huge, terrifying orange aura.
"She is looking at me with lost eyes, like `Dad, what am I going to do?'" says Lacaille. "That is my recurring flashback. Every day and night. Every day since it crashed."
When all 309 people aboard escaped with their lives from the burning and broken A340 two months ago today, the media was quick to dub it "The Miracle of Runway 24L."
And, given the catastrophe that might have happened, there's no doubt it could have been much, much worse. Passengers departed quickly. Emergency services responded rapidly. No one died.
But the trauma to passengers and destruction of the multimillion-dollar plane needn't have happened at all.
A Star investigation shows that � despite the plane landing so late there was little chance of it stopping in those conditions � a series of safety improvements at the airport could have saved the plane. Experts say the runway should be longer and should have special grooves to mitigate wet conditions, and the end of the runway should be surrounded with an apron of special concrete designed to stop runaway planes.
"It was completely preventable," says Mary Schiavo, former director general of the United States Department of Transportation, a pilot, author, and widely acknowledged authority on aviation accidents.
Schiavo is an interested party � the South Carolina-based lawyer is involved in a class action suit on behalf of passengers of Flight 358 � but numerous other aviation authorities in Canada and the U.S. have told the Star
, repeatedly, that runway 24L, and Pearson in general, could have been made safer with some simple steps common at many American airports.
aising two infants in the south of France with wife Veronique
before moving to Canada in 1983, Philippe Lacaille had a hugely successful career as a chairman and CEO of companies specializing in biotech and pharmaceuticals. He racked up so many miles aboard jets that he calculates he circumnavigated the Earth five times during some three decades in biotech.
Now retired from that field, he is a yoga teacher and certified Reiki therapist.
"It's like a second calling for me. A life calling," he says. So, too, is his family. Together, they make an annual trip to Paris so his youngest kids � Kevin
, 12, and Emilie � can visit their grandparents and extended family. They stayed there five weeks this summer until, on Aug. 2, it was time to come home.
The takeoff was smooth as silk when, sometime before 2 p.m. local time, the four powerful jet engines roared Flight 358 into the skies over Charles De Gaulle Airport. With its highly sophisticated electronic flight deck, the A340 is considered one of the most technologically complex passenger jets on earth. Safe, too; there have been no passenger fatalities aboard an Airbus 340 since the craft went into service in 1993. The jet flying Aug. 2, registration number F-GLZQ, began its professional life in 1999 and had logged nearly 28,500 hours in the skies. It had been serviced in July.
Greenland's bold silhouette unfolded below as the craft, carrying 297 passengers and 12 crew members, streaked toward Canada. Dozens of excited exchange students bubbled with enthusiasm about their coming adventure in this country.
"People were happy," says Lacaille. "Kids were going back and forth � it was a lively plane."
The Lacailles were in row 45. Behind them, just a few rows from the back, sat Emera Danial. The 65-year-old widow recently emigrated to Canada from Iraq. She was returning from visiting relatives in Syria, her luggage bursting with gifts for her daughter and granddaughter: gold anklets and bracelets, rings and crosses; perfumes, towels and clothes.
With just a smattering of English, Danial wasn't interested in the in-flight movie or chatting to the couple squeezed in next to her. She would spend most of the flight praying silently, not because she was nervous but because she is a devout Christian who finds comfort in prayer throughout her day.
Blue skies greeted Flight 358 when it passed into Ontario airspace. But then the 57-year-old captain (Air France has not named any of the crew) got on the intercom and said the plane would have to circle for a bit � probably for 20 minutes, Lacaille recalls � because of severe weather in the Toronto area.
A thunderstorm had been pounding the area from Newmarket to the Niagara region intermittently through the afternoon. By the time Air France Flight 358 was lining up to land, the storm was fiercer at the airport than anywhere else in the region. Rain was hammering the runways. The wind was quickly changing direction and blasting in powerful 60 km/h gusts.
At 12:20 p.m., a lightning advisory had halted operations of the ground crews, who were at risk of being struck. Planes were backed up on the tarmac, unable to load or unload.
As the weather worsened, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which operates Pearson, issued a news release saying the two north-south runways were to be used only as a last resort due to the storm. The northernmost east-west runway � the longest at Pearson � had been taken out of operation the day before for maintenance.
The airport was down to 24R and 24L, two shorter runways that are roughly parallel to Highway 401 at the southernmost point of the airport.
Runway 24L is the airport's shortest, at 2.74 kilometres, and the newest. Before it could open the runway in 2002, the GTAA had to buy the Regal Constellation, a hotel on the east side of Airport Rd., and slice the top off it to give planes enough clearance.
Pearson's critics don't have any issues with the hotel end of the runway, but they're not happy with the other end. Just 200 metres from the end of the tarmac, past a stretch of open grass and a service road, lies a steep, tree-filled gully and the winding waters of Etobicoke Creek. Proposals to do something about the creek hazard have been made at least since 1972, when engineering consultant Robert Choma approached the airport with a scheme to fill it in. He says his plan was dismissed as too expensive.
The creek became an issue in 1978 when a DC-9 skidded off runway 23L (now known as runway 24R). After an aborted take-off, the plane skidded into the gully, killing two passengers. Two of the nine recommendations from the coroner's jury involved covering over Etobicoke Creek, but it never happened.
In 1996, Transport Canada handed control of the airport to the GTAA, an autonomous, not-for-profit, private operator. The GTAA embarked on a $4.4 billion redevelopment of the airport that included building a fifth runway � 24L, parallel to 24R, both leading toward the creek. Brian Lackey, vice president of operations for the GTAA, says filling in the creek wasn't considered and the new runway was built to meet Transport Canada safety standards. But Transport Canada standards don't meet International Civil Aviation Organization standards.
ICAO, a branch of the United Nations, sets runway standards, but leaves it to national authorities to implement them. ICAO standards must ultimately fit into local realities, said Denis Chagnon from ICAO's Montreal headquarters.
ICAO recommends a 300-metre safety zone at the end of all runways handling international traffic, but will settle for a 150-metre safety zone as an international standard. Transport Canada's standard calls for a 60-metre over-run, with a recommendation for an additional 90 metres.
Pearson's runway 24L meets the 60-metre Transport Canada standard, but not all of the additional 90-metre recommendation (the GTAA would not divulge how much extra safety overrun space it has). It couldn't reach the 90-metre mark without filling in the creek, a move deemed by some to be too costly, and by others to be environmentally insensitive.
As one aviation official put it, if you don't have the extra 90 metres, "you just live with whatever you have."
hile Flight 358 burned up time and fuel waiting for clearance to land, many passengers watched the global positioning system relaying the route in real time on the overhead monitors. Lacaille thinks they might have spent 10 minutes or so before the captain � with 15,000 hours flying time and a 20-year career with Air France � again got on the intercom. It was time, he said, to descend.
As the nose of the 63.7 metre-long plane began probing the clouds, Emera Danial was calmly doing what she had done for much of the flight: praying to the Virgin Mary, holding her white plastic rosary and pictures of Mary she had bought at a shrine in Damascus. It was only the fifth time Danial had ever been on a plane, but she wasn't nervous.
But Philippe Lacaille was starting to feel unsettled.
"I have flown 27 or 28 years around the world as an executive. I've flown through very severe weather. I have never seen anything like that.
"The clouds were dark and dense ... and the deeper we were going, it started turning yellowish. (Yet) it was so dark they had to turn on the lights in the plane," Lacaille says, still sounding in disbelief.
"Incredible turbulence, lightning all around the plane � every second, almost. The plane was going absolutely insane. I'm not a pilot, but I don't know how anyone in their right mind could have let the pilot land in this weather."
Some experts have also questioned why the pilot chose to land. Other planes had, but conditions were worsening. Mary Schiavo, the aviation expert retained by a group suing the airline, speculates the plane was virtually out of fuel and had no option but to put down.
The decision to land ultimately rests with the pilot, who relies on information fed to the cockpit from the tower, from planes that landed earlier, and onboard weather monitoring systems. But minutes before Flight 358 came in to land, a lightning strike disabled runway 24L's anemometer, a gauge for recording the speed and direction of wind � vital information for a pilot landing in a storm.
Another tool for transmitting weather information � something Pearson doesn't have � is Doppler radar, which can predict severe wind shears. The airport, through Environment Canada, can tell pilots precise weather patterns as they are; with Doppler, they can tell what's coming.
"One thing that's missing at Pearson is some sort of wind-shear alert system," said Bob Perkins, an Air Canada Jazz captain and the head of the Canadian safety branch of the Air Line Pilots Association. "What they have is reactive to what is there right now. It's looking at wind speed, how much rain has fallen."
But what's needed "is more predictive, looking out beyond the airports, seeing what's happening, translating that into motion to be decoded by algorithms in the programs and be turned into an alerting function that is usable by air traffic controllers, usable by flight crews to give us some warning of the fact that things are not going the way they should be."
Most major U.S. airports have it. So do a lot of American and Canadian TV stations, for forecasting weather. But not Pearson. Lackey says with its weather stations and radars, the airport feels it has the information it needs to operate safely.
ir traffic controllers signalled Flight 358 to come in on runway 24L and slow to final approach speed. At the same time, controllers were keeping their eyes on another flight of lightning nearby. They told Air Canada Flight 1105 to change position to "get you around some of the heavier weather."
What happened in the cockpit is not clear, as investigators have not publicly released audio recordings and released only partial black box data. But some details are known.
As the shuddering jet descended to 300 feet, the autopilot and autothrust were disconnected. The pilots would land the jet manually � standard operating procedure for most airlines in poor weather.
At 300 feet, the pilots set the braking system to medium and brought the plane in.
When planes land, most of the braking action is done by the wheels, with spoilers and reverse thrust only helping to slow the aircraft.
The runway came in sight, 2.74 kilometres of slick, rain-soaked asphalt, but to the Lacailles it seemed too far below. As it came closer, Philippe and Veronique recall a sudden shift in wind blasting the jet from behind. It felt like the wind was making the plane accelerate through the air.
Pilots should touch down in the first third of a runway to give the maximum distance for braking. For some reason � wind shear, human error, other factors � the Airbus touched down almost half way down the runway. There was very little room to stop. When the wheels hit the runway the plane was travelling at 274 kilometres per hour, slightly faster than it should have been.
The Airbus barrelled along the runway, and to many of the passengers it felt like the plane was speeding up to take off again. Shortly after touchdown, the pilots effectively stepped on the brakes hard. Braking data released by Airbus shows the pilots quickly overrode the autobrake and applied full braking power. One unconfirmed report in the French media has the pilots delaying 12 seconds before activating reverse thrusters. If true, experts say that was simply too late.
If there was indeed a delay in the reverse thrust engaging, there's speculation it may have been software-related. There have been incidents with other aircraft where the computer appeared to be thinking one thing and not immediately responding to pilot inputs.
Gunnar Kuepper, a director of the International Association of Emergency Managers and a member of the advisory board of the Canadian Center for Emergency Preparedness, has studied the crash at Pearson, and sees similarities with an accident in Warsaw in 1993.
A plane was attempting to land in heavy weather with severe rain and a strong tailwind. When the tires hydroplaned, Kuepper says, they didn't begin the normal rotation that would occur with a regular landing. The computer didn't "think" the jet was down and � despite efforts by the pilot � delayed the application of reverse thrust and brakes for nine seconds. The jet skidded off the end of the runway; two of the 70 on board died and many others were injured.
"The computer didn't realize the plane was on the ground. The pilot didn't know what the computer was doing," says Kuepper. "My speculation is that, indeed, something like that happened in Toronto.
`We ended up nose-down in the ditch with the fire going. The only thought I had was to protect my whole family under me and we'll die here together.'Philippe Lacaille , passenger
`If you had this crumbling runway stuff at the end of the runway, this for sure would have saved the airplane.'Gunnar Kuepper, emergency management expert
"Therefore it had something to do with the interaction between the computers and the pilot, and perhaps the pilot did not react properly, the computer did not react properly, the plane landed very late, and so on."
Soon after the crash, Real Levasseur, lead investigator for the Transportation Safety Board, said he doubted hydroplaning was a factor. There were skid marks on the runway. But experts interviewed by the Star say the aircraft likely hydroplaned at least briefly, dramatically reducing the braking potential of the wheels.
By the time it reached the end of the runway the plane had slowed down, but not nearly enough. It skidded past the end of the runway, beyond a 60-metre safety over-run and across a stretch of grass, smashed through chain-link fence, skidded over a service road, smashed through another steel fence, and fell down the tree-filled gully of Etobicoke Creek.
With investigations under way, neither Air France nor Airbus will comment on any aspect of the accident. In a statement by Airbus soon after the crash, the aircraft manufacturer said information gleaned from the preliminary investigation showed all of the aircraft's systems worked, but the runway was simply too wet. The statement, based on partial data, did not mention any software problems.
Given it landed 1,200 metres up a 2.74-kilometre runway, the pilot should have abandoned the landing, says Doug Seagrim, a retired Air Canada pilot.
"Before the wheels even touched, they should have realized how much runway had gone by and how wet it was. Airplanes, once they're traveling above 90 knots, they'll hydroplane. That's just like waterskiing. The wheels don't actually contact the runway. To even attempt to land when they're that far down the runway, or continue with the landing, that's a classic `Don't do it.'"
The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority has a program to battle hydroplaning. Just about every runway in the United States has grooves cut into it perpendicular to the runway; the water drains faster, the wheels get better grip.
The reverse is true in Canada, with only a handful of runways being grooved. It wasn't always so. In the 1970s, Pearson's runways were grooved, says Hugh Devitt, the general manager of the airport from 1972-76.
"I had in fact implemented the grooving of the thresholds of the runway, that is both ends of the runways, with what we call grooving," said Devitt, now 84. "I'd proven in 1974 that this was the way to go to accelerate the moisture leaving."
Lackey, from the GTAA, says grooving would be of no advantage today.
"The runways at that time were concrete surfaced. Our runways at Pearson now are all asphalt surface. It's our belief we get an appropriate amount of runway surface friction with an asphalt surface. The grooving generally corrects problems with polishing of aggregates and slipperiness of concrete surfaces."
That argument doesn't wash with the FAA. "We groove both concrete and asphalt runways," says spokeswoman Marcia Alexander-Adams.
ll Lacaille knows is that what followed was a nightmare: the craft touching down and bouncing back � "like it was a basketball," says Emilie � then screaming down the runway; the orange glow framing Emilie's face; the plane plunging off the end of 24L and the certainty that death was near.
"We ended up nose-down in the ditch with the fire going," says Lacaille. "The only thought I had was to grab my daughter, protect her, protect my whole family under me and we'll die here together."
There were problems getting out. Several emergency chutes didn't deploy, leaving passengers to jump three metres to the ground as the fire grew behind them, stoking fears of an explosion. Passengers fell on top of other passengers. Almost all of the injuries from the crash were caused by the leap to the ground � broken legs, twisted ankles, sore necks and the odd ruptured vertebrae.
The Lacaille family managed to slide down a chute and clamber aboard a cube van that happened by, helping other passengers into the vehicle. Soon, dozens of drenched, terrified people were crammed in the tight space, which quickly filled with smoke from the burning plane.
"I screamed, `Let us out!'" recalls Veronique. "I thought: We escaped the plane crash, we're not going to die from smoke inhalation."
Emera Danial hadn't realized anything was wrong until her glasses flew off her face with the hard jolt on landing. Nor could she understand the announcements over the intercom � she speaks only Arabic.
But she understood "Out, out! Hurry!" as someone pulled her up. She followed the crowd to a door, where a slide had been inflated. On the way down, rain pouring onto her face, Danial's right leg bent back behind her and she felt a sharp pain.
When she hit the hard ground with a thud, she could not stand up. She had fractured her femur.
Passengers tried to help her away from the plane, but she's a large woman, and they could only drag her so far. Some, including a few Arabic speakers, urged her to get up and run, but she couldn't, and watched helplessly as others sprinted from the burning wreckage.
Danial crumpled into the rocky mud, alone beside the burning plane, coughing in the acrid smoke. She screamed in Arabic "Ta al, ta al." Help, help.
She prayed to the Virgin Mary to save her. She thought she was going to die.
o far this year, eight planes have over-shot their runways in North America, resulting in 33 deaths and more than 150 injuries. But a January incident at John F. Kennedy Airport International in New York stands out, because no one was injured. A Boeing 747-200F skidded off a runway perched over Jamaica Bay, and came to a complete stop. The runway's very short safety zone was equipped with Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS). It's a concrete that crumbles under the weight of an aircraft, but strong enough to support the weight of emergency vehicles.
When it crumbles, it slows the plane down, says Pasquale DiFulco, spokesman for the New York & New Jersey Port Authority, which installed the world's first EMAS system at JFK in 1996.
"It's essentially concrete that's pumped full of air that's designed to absorb the energy of a rolling aircraft, crushing the material as it runs over it," said DiFulco. "Imagine driving a car into gradually deepening snow, or into gradually deepening sand.
But the "jury's still out" on EMAS, says Lackey. "We understand there have been concerns about maintenance, particularly in the kind of climate we have here... It's a material which is susceptible to moisture. When you get moisture and it freezes, it doesn't necessarily perform as advertised."
But the FAA reports no problems with EMAS. It's in 18 airports in the U.S., including six in northern climes � Minneapolis, Boston Logan, Rochester, N.Y., Binghamton, N.Y., JFK and La Guardia � and one on the way in Teterborough, N.J.
mera Danial sat in the mud for what felt like an hour, although EMS personnel were on the scene within minutes.
The GTAA's team of emergency responders from Peel and Toronto run more than a dozen exercises a year. About a year earlier, the scenario was a plane in the creek during heavy rain, eerily similar to the Air France crash. They learned a lot, including that they would need bulldozers to clear debris and make a path for fire trucks and ambulances.
The paramedics have been lauded for their quick work that day in treating passengers and getting them to safety in difficult conditions. The first fire truck was there in 52 seconds, ambulances soon after � remarkable considering that just getting to the site was challenging for some of the paramedics, not because of the crash, but because of the weather. Power lines were down, roads were flooded, the highways were bumper-to-bumper.
The Airbus had been completely evacuated within 90 seconds, but passengers had fled through the rain in all directions. Some headed north onto the tarmac. Others went south toward the highway, where they flagged down cars or huddled for cover under bridges. Passengers were spotted walking the slim divider between the express and commuter lanes of Highway 401. Still others clustered quietly together in the ravine, covered in mud.
Four different triage centres were quickly set up to treat passengers where they were. The rain was still bucketing down, making it difficult to see. Black smoke billowing from the wreckage carried the stench of burning plastic, as the fuselage of the Airbus disintegrated in the intense heat.
Platoon manager Ben Addley, the first Peel EMS personnel at the crash site, arrived to see scores of passengers frantically racing up the gully toward him, yelling and asking where they should go. Most were barefoot, as they had been told to remove their shoes before jumping down the emergency chute.
A delivery truck pulled up out of nowhere. The driver jumped out and yanked open the door to release about 40 people, including the Lacailles.
"It was mayhem," Addley says.
The Lacaille family and many others were put on GTAA buses at the site, where they sat for more than two hours before being taken back to the airport where Philippe and Veronique's oldest son, Julien
, 23, was waiting for news of them.
hen the Arrivals monitor in Terminal 3 flashed that Air France Flight 358 had been delayed, Emera Danial's daughter Khulud Jirjes started to worry.
Then a passenger without shoes burst through the Arrivals gate screaming there had been a fire and everyone on the Air France flight was dead, Jirjes recalls. "I thought it was finished, that I'd never see my mother again," Jirjes says.
Even when reports began to filter in that passengers had survived, she didn't believe it. For hours, Jirjes feared the worst, shivering beneath a blanket in a meeting room of the Sheraton Gateway Hotel, where family members and friends of the passengers were sequestered.
What she didn't know is that soon after they arrived at the wreckage, firefighters emerged from the brush carrying a large woman on a back board. One said she had been sitting in the smoke near the plane, and had grabbed his leg when he walked by. She was saying something in a language he didn't recognize.
That woman was Danial.
But it wasn't until 10 p.m. that Jirjes's cellphone rang with the news her mother was in the emergency ward at Etobicoke's William Osler Health Centre. The next day, Danial went in for surgery and emerged hours later, a metal plate and 38 screws in her right leg. The scar is still raw, stretching from below her knee up her thigh.
Since the accident, Danial has spent most of her time in her pink flannel nightgown in bed or on the couch of their Jane and Steeles apartment. She still can't put weight on her right leg without a sharp pain shooting through her knee, and uses a walker. She has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
Although all passengers aboard Flight 358 were promised compensation for their destroyed luggage, Danial says she has yet to see anything beyond reimbursement for some expenses.
It wasn't long after the crash before there was talk of class action suits against Air France, the GTAA and Airbus, among others.
Danial has joined a suit organized by lawyer Paul Miller of Will Barristers, Barristers and Solicitors, seeking damages of $325 million. Some of the 72 passengers in his suit "are terrified of going into the subway because they're petrified of being in a confined space with no control of their movement," Miller says. "I have a client who won't even come into my office, which is on the 30th floor of my building. She's too terrified."
Another suit, which also names the pilots as defendants, seeks $150 million.
Philippe Lacaille, who already went through one life-altering experience when he quit his corporate job, seems to believe in second chances.
"The question is: `What am I going to do with this second chance? How can I benefit others?'" says Lacaille, who is also in the Miller lawsuit.
Since the crash, he has opened his own Reiki centre in Oak Ridges and also runs a hospice. "That's how I see completing the second part of this life, is to try to be better with other people and serve them as best I can."
By the end of the day, as a result of the storm and then the crash, more than 450 flights were cancelled and thousands of passengers forced to disembark planes that had been preparing for takeoff.
But no one died in this accident, and in a way that gives Transport Canada and Pearson airport officials a second chance.
To Kuepper, the emergency management expert, the remedies are obvious.
"The Doppler radar would be very helpful to the pilots," says Kuepper. "If you had this crumbling runway stuff at the end of the runway, this for sure would have saved the airplane."
The Transportation Safety Board investigation continues. Spokesman John Cottreau promises it will be "thorough" and if safety deficiencies are noted, corrections will be recommended.
"If the safety board comes along and says `Gee guys, this has got to change, or that's got to change, and that's particularly in relation to grooved runways, or runway-end safety areas, or the arrester systems' ... that would be first of all aimed at the entire country and not just us," says John Kaldeway, CEO of the GTAA. "Whatever the safety board says, we will be reading with a great deal of interest."
Transport Canada says it's looking at upgrading as many as 300 safety standards, including safety over-runs, to bring Canada in line with international standards. It may be 2007 before they're implemented.
In the meantime, more than 23 million passengers will move through Pearson this year. Here's to second chances.
The investigative team can be reached via email or at 905-265-5208.