Tonight is a story about Air Transat Flight number 236 from Toronto, Canada to Lisbon, Portugal. On Thursday 24th August 2001, 293 people boarded the Airbus A330 aircraft owned by Canadian Airline Air Transat to fly from Toronto to Lisbon, in addition to the 293 passengers there were 13 crew members on board piloted by Captain Robert Piche. The aircraft departed from Toronto on-time with 46.9 tonnes of fuel onboard, more than enough to make the non-stop flight to Lisbon.
4hrs 28 minutes into the flight a cockpit warning system chimes and warned of high oil pressure in engine number 2 – the Airbus A330 has two engines, one under each wing. The captain and co-pilot suspected that it was false warning as everything else was showing normal. 4hrs 36 minutes into the flight and the pilots received a warning of fuel imbalance, not knowing at this point that they had a fuel leak, so they following the standard procedure to remedy the imbalance by transferring fuel from one wing to the near-empty tank on the other wing. Unknown to the pilots, the aircraft had developed a fuel leak in a fuel line to the right hand engine. The transferring of fuel to correct the imbalance only made the problem worse by wasting fuel through the leak in the engine on the right hand side. The leak, which averaged 1 gallon per second, caused the initial warning of a pressure problem because of the increased fuel flow to the engine that had the leak in it.
4hrs 45 minutes into the flight – The pilots decide to divert too Lajes Air Base in the Azores as they are still unsure at this stage if they have a fuel leak or not.
5hrs 13 minutes into the flight – While still 135 miles from Lajes Air Base, the right hand engine shuts down because of fuel starvation, Captain Piche orders full thrust from the remaining engine, starts to descend from 39,000 feet, and declares an emergency with Azores air traffic control.
5hrs 23 minutes into the flight – The crew send out a mayday as they realize that although the right engine has shut down, the fuel tank was still feeding fuel into that engine and they could not stop this, hence they were wasting what precious fuel that had left as it was leaking through the engine and down into the dark Atlantic.
5hrs 36 minutes into the flight – The nightmare begins as the remain engine shuts down because of fuel starvation, they are still 65 miles from touch down, without engine power, and also no primary source of electrical power. The aircraft if equipped with a “ram air turbine” which basically is deployed from under the aircraft and, it looks like a large fan and the wind turns it to provide essential power for critical sensor and instruments to be able to fly the aircraft. However there was only emergency lighting in the passenger cabin, and the aircraft had no hydraulic power to operate the flaps to slow it down, and no reverse thrust or hydraulic breaks to stop it on the runway.
Military air traffic controllers at Lajes had to track the aircraft on radar and tell the pilots exactly where they were and to guide them towards the airfield. l say guide them as the huge aircraft was now a glider, Captain Piche flew the aircraft while the co-pilot monitored the rate of descent, which was 2,000 feet a minute. This meant that they had approx. 15 minutes to land, or either ditch into the dark Atlantic Ocean.
6hrs 01 minute into the flight – The crew sighted the air base, but had to execute a series of 360 degree turns to lose air speed and altitude if they were to successfully line up with Runway 33 at Lajes.
6hrs 06 minutes into the flight – The plane was now lined up with the runway, and on its final descent, going faster than normal, they manually unlocked the landing gear, the air speed was still too high, but they had no flaps to slow it down before landing.
At 6hrs 11 minutes the aircraft touched down hard at 200 knots, a normal landing speed is 140 knots, the aircraft bounced back into the air, and touched down again 2,800 feet down the runway, it had 7,600 feet of runway left in which to stop. With the operation of emergency brakes, all eight tires burst, in fact most were ground into the tarmac, the aircraft stopped 200 feet from the end of the runway. Everybody evacuated using the slides, and only 16 people suffered minor injuries during the evacuation.
One final thought – In theory the outcome should have been much worse, and the track for the flight that night from Toronto to Lisbon should have taken a more northerly route over the Atlantic. However the flight was re-routed at the last minute by air traffic control, via a more southerly route over the Azores because of congestion over the northerly tracks that night. Had the flight takes its original track, it would have had to ditch into the North Atlantic. The photos below show the aircraft the morning after the incredible glide into Lajes, still on the runway with all the slides deployed, photo 2 shows the brakes and tires which were ground into the airports runway, and photo 3 the tracks for the aircraft showing the original route and the route that it was changed to.