• Air Transat Flight 236

    Air Transat Flight 236

    By Devon Leslie

    It had been a relatively calm flight on the morning of August 24th, 2001. Air Transat Flight 236 out of Toronto was heading to Lisbon, Portugal to deliver a new batch of vacationers. The Airbus 330, cruising at 39,000, sped through the atmosphere at .84 Mach while her passengers slept. She was the pride of the airline, and she let everyone know as the whir of her Rolls-Royce engines sang to the occupants. Only the aircraft fuel computer knew the dark secret brewing on the right wing. A secret that had been interpreted as a fuel imbalance in the right tank. It was only a matter of time before the secret would shake every occupants' courage to their knees.

    Another routine flight nearing conclusion, Captain Robert Piche relaxed while he chatted to his copilot and some of the crew. With the cabin lighting turned off, the cockpit was dark except for a hint of sunrise just over the horizon. Everything was just as it should be. They would be landing in Lisbon in about two hours and Piche was looking forward to a well-deserved break. He smiled as the attendants traded passenger stories with the copilot and walked through the landing checklist in his head as he stretched. With a slap on his knees, Piche stood up and told his copilot it was time to prepare for approach. They bid the attendants farewell and returned to their seats for the final leg of the journey. The copilot switched on the lighting and pulled a kneeboard from his side as he glanced at the various displays in front of him. Piche, glancing at his own checklist, didn't notice the copilot as he did a double-take on the fuel gauge.

    "Bob, we've got a problem here."

    Piche looked up from his list. His eyes dialated and a shiver crawled up his spine. His copilot had just told him that they had ten minutes of fuel left. With an explanation eluding them, Piche checked the gauge and noticed they had lost over 90% of their remaining fuel in less than two hours and the right tank was draining at an alarming rate. It already was virtually empty. The fuel computer had been transferring fuel from the left tank to compensate and was down past emergency levels. Quick as he could, Piche turned the transfer switch to off, perserving what little fuel they had in the left tank. With Lisbon still over 1000 miles away, Piche knew he had to find a place to land and fast. He scanned the maps and told the copilot to head for Lajes airport in The Azores. It was still about 150 miles away but it was their only chance. Captain Robert Piche sat straight in his seat as he faced the hard reality of what they were about to face. He knew what he had to do.

    "Well, let's get down to business."

    The course correction made, the two airmen waited in silence as they listened to the Trent 700 engines whine behind them. A few moments passed while Piche reviewed his emergency training in his head. Then it happened. The right engine gasped for fuel as it faded out of existence. They were only on one engine now. The plane was trimmed to compensate and Piche watched the airspeed fall. 'Stay with me, 125 miles to go...' He began the decent to Lajes, the left tank still falling. Another twelve minutes and suddenly the unthinkable became a reality. Complete engine failure. Flight 236 was deadstick...

    "One-one-five miles to Lajes."

    Both airmen were in automatic. Piche called to Lajes on the radio and explained the situtation. Carefully, Pilot and Copilot moved through the checklists in preparation for what could be their final moments of life. The supervising attendant was instructed to prepare for emergency landing and Piche closed his eyes as gasps and cries of fear wafted from the cabin. The lives of 308 passengers and crew now rested on the shoulders of Captain Robert Piche. He watched the descent profile like a hawk. Adjusting speed and pitch to keep the heavy jet on course. Come in too fast and they would crush the airframe. Come in too high and they would stall out short of Lajes. Piche knew, all too well, they had one shot to get the A330 down in one piece.

    "Four-five miles to Lajes."

    As the Airbus glided through the air, the dawn broke in front of them raining light on the ocean below. Piche had hoped for this. He knew that he needed visual of the runway to land. A soft haze floated below them making it difficult to see the surface. Had they calculated the descent correctly? Piche did not want to contend with attempting a water landing; History had shown the odds were not good for survival. 'We have to make it to Lajes...'

    Suddenly, through the haze, Piche saw the lights of the runway appear below them. Their profile was right on the money. The final seconds of the flight, good or bad, were about to transpire. Piche and his copilot rolled in for final descent. They had to come in fast to keep the bird in the air. The only thing left to tackle was that final flare. Piche would call in every minute of his experience to complete this landing. 'Watch the nose...'

    The call in the cabin for emergency posture stirs more cries from the passengers. The flight attendants made one final sweep of the cabin and strapped in with only their faith to comfort them. The surface approached from underneath as the Flight 236 descended towards the runway.

    "500."

    A slight crosswind had pushed the aircraft to the left. Piche slowly brought the plane on-line without sacrificing their precious speed. There was no way he was going to allow a stallout so close to safety.

    "300."

    Gentle adjustments made, the line looked good. Piche prepared to flare and instructed his Co- to get ready on the spoilers. Without reverse-thrust, they needed to start braking as soon as possible.

    "100."

    "50."

    God help us...

    "10."

    With a resounding crash, big iron thumped hard into the pavement. Under immense pressure and speed, the tires exploded into flames as the aicraft screamed down the runway. The nose drifting down, Pilot and Copilot threw the spoiler and engaged the brakes. Fire trucks could be seen in the distance as the great plane gradually slowed. 'Hold together, baby...' Smoke billowing from the gear, the airbus ground to a halt under the spray of fire suppression cannons.

    They had done it.

    Mayhem erupted from the cabin as attendants screamed at passengers to stay calm. The sound of doors bursting and chutes deploying came in under the melee. The passengers still in a state of fear pushed in desperation to get out of the plane. Only Piche knew that they were safe, but there was no way to calm the 300 occupants of that until they were off the aircraft. Captain Robert Piche, left in a trance-like state, breathed out with a sigh of relief shook the hand of his Copilot.

    History would record that 9 passengers suffered injuries disembarking from the plane. All 308 crew and passengers survived including one roughed-up Airbus 330 that would return to service after inspection of the accident. With the help of the NTSB, it was determined that a incorrect replacement pump had been installed on the right Trent 700 engine. About five hours into the flight, the pump had ruptured a fuel line spilling jet fuel into the Atlantic. The fuel computer hadn't been programmed to recognize this particular problem and had pumped almost all of the fuel into the right tank. Airbus is currently investigating the avionics involved in this incident. Rolls-Royce claims that Air Transat is at fault for improper maintenance. Air Transat was fined by the Canadian Federal Government and was placed under restrictions for trans-Atlantic travel. Air Transat must now fly within 60 minutes of an airport at all times for no less than two years until the Canadian National Transportation Safety Board is satisfied that Air Transat has corrected its issues.

    Air Transat still flies the A330 that was involved in Flight 236. To this day, Captain Robert Piche is considered a hero by many passengers and crew that were onboard on August 24th, 2001.

    This work is fictional and should not be considered a true representation of the events involving Flight 236. The story derived from various press releases including statements from the crew, passengers and inspectors involved in the incident.

    Devon Leslie
    rabbitcancer@hotmail.com