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And everyone lived

A REMARKABLE ESCAPE: The Air France Airbus overshot the runway, skidded into a ravine and caught fire.

By JEAN HELLER
Published August 3, 2005


The boiling black smoke. The fuel-fed explosions. The flames that raged through a jumbo jet fuselage snapped in pieces.

The horrifying scenario predicted certain tragedy.

Yet 309 people, every soul on board Air France Flight 358 from Paris to Toronto, survived when the Airbus A340 overshot the end of an 11,000-foot runway on landing Tuesday afternoon, tore through a wooded area and plunged into a ravine.

In the precious seconds before the four-engine aircraft burst into a fireball, the crew of 12 managed to open emergency doors, deploy chutes and get everyone out. Late Tuesday, airline officials and officials at Toronto Pearson International Airport, said as many as 43 people suffered minor injuries. However, there was some disagreement on the number injured. Steve Shaw, a vice president of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, said there were 43 injured passengers. Air France, however, said in a statement that 22 passengers were treated for minor injuries.

"The plane touched ground and we felt it was going off road and hitting a ravine, and that's when we thought that was really the end of it," Olivier Dubois, a passenger in the rear of the plane, told Canadian television. "People were screaming and . . . jumping as fast as possible and running everywhere, because our biggest fear is that it would blow up."

Because of severe thunderstorms in the area when Flight 358 landed, crash investigators are likely to focus on at least two weather-related scenarios.

They will try to determine whether the Air France jet could have hydroplaned. The downpour that coincided with the landing could have overwhelmed the runway's drainage system and left the plane riding on a sheen of water that would have made its braking system inoperative.

Investigators also will try to determine of the thunderstorms around the airport generated a microburst - a swift and dramatic shift in wind speed and direction that can push a jetliner out of the sky.

Ironically, the Toronto accident occurred 20 years to the day that a microburst downed a Delta Airlines jumbo jet as it approached Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, killing 137 people.

No warning

No problems were apparent as the great white jet with red and blue tail trim approached Toronto Pearson International Airport. Both passengers and eyewitnesses agree that the plane touched down normally. It was 4:03 p.m.

Corey Marks, who told CNN he watched the landing from the side of a busy highway along the airport, reported hearing the engines go into reverse, a key moment in the flight-desk crew's procedures for slowing the plane after landing.

But, according to Marks, the plane kept moving forward at a higher-than-normal rate of speed until it ran out of runway and plowed into the woods.

Early reports quoted witnesses as saying the plane blew a tire, but veteran jumbo jet pilots told the St. Petersburg Times that if a tire did fail, it probably happened during the crew's frantic efforts to stop the aircraft and probably would have had no effect on their ability to control the plane.

Dubois, the passenger, said the cabin lights went out just before landing. But cabin lights often flicker momentarily, and it is not known if that was an early indication of trouble, such as a lightning strike.

The dual lines of inquiry are certain to include the possibility of both a microburst and hydroplaning.

A microburst is a shaft of cold air that plunges to the ground from high in the atmosphere, often in thunderstorms. It hits the earth and fans out in all directions. A low-flying airplane, such as one on final approach for landing, first flies into a strong headwind, then a downdraft which pushes it toward the ground, then a strong tailwind. The tailwind robs the wings of lift, causing the craft to sink rapidly.

In the 20 years since the Delta crash in Dallas, the Federal Aviation Administration and other federal agencies have spent millions of dollars to adapt weather-prediction technology to help keep aircraft safe in severe weather. The Terminal Doppler Radar system can predict microbursts so that controllers can wave off aircraft flying into danger.

Modern runways are built to resist hydroplaning. They are crowned in the center and grooved. The grooves carry water off the asphalt or concrete below the surface on which airplane tires travel. But truly torrential downpours can deposit water faster than the dispersal system can carry it away.

Most commercial aircraft are equipped with anti-skid systems that stop a plane from sliding on ice or standing water.

Sensors on landing gear allow pilots to apply brakes only if the landing gear wheels are turning, indicating the plane is on a solid surface. If the Airbus was hydroplaning on a sheet of rainwater, the tired would not have been turning, and the brake would have been disabled.

Furthermore, if witnesses who heard the engines reverse were correct in their observation, the crew was helpless. At that point, professional pilots say, the crew is committed irrevocably to the landing. The plane must stay on the ground as the pilots try to bring it to a safe stop.

It was not known late Tuesday what the accident's implications are for operations at Toronto Pearson International Airport. The field has a second 11,000-foot east-west runway parallel to the strip where the accident occurred.

According to Brenda Geoghagan, spokeswoman for Tampa International Airport, both scheduled flights from Tampa to Toronto - one by Air Canada and one by WestJet - arrived and departed on time. Passengers are advised to call their airlines for details on Wednesday flights.

A workhorse

The A340 is a very popular "workhorse" among carriers serving Asian and trans-Atlantic routes, with a very good safety record, said Chris Yates, an aviation specialist with Jane's Transport magazine, said

A total of 237 of the A340-300 and its sister craft, the A340-200, are now in operation, according to the manufacturer. This was its first crash.

The A340, which has been in service for 14 years, can carry from 250 to 305 passengers and a crew of 12 to 15, depending on how its seating is configured for different airlines.

So, Tuesday's Air France flight was full, or nearly so, making the escape of everyone aboard even more remarkable.

Times researchers John Martin and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report, which also includes information from Times wires.

[Last modified August 3, 2005, 00:37:06]


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