TORONTO — Toronto’s airport was under “red alert” because of the threat of lightning when an Air France jetliner landed in a fierce rainstorm despite having enough fuel to reach another airport — a decision that was made by the pilot, airport authorities said Wednesday.
Investigators searching the wreckage of the Airbus A340 found the flight data and voice recorders — the so-called “black boxes,” said Steve Shaw, spokesman for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. Officials hope the recorders will provide clues to what caused the aircraft to skid off a runway Tuesday at Lester B. Pearson International Airport and burst into flames.
All 309 passengers and crew escaped alive in an evacuation that took less than two minutes. Air France said 22 people were injured, while airport officials said 43 were hurt. The wreckage of the jetliner — torn into three pieces — still smoldered Wednesday.
Brian Lackey, vice president of operations for the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, said Wednesday the jetliner had enough fuel to divert to Montreal or another airport where the weather was better, but “that’s the pilot’s decision.”
The airport was under a “red alert,” which indicates potential for lightning but does not prevent planes from landing or taking off, officials said.
Lackey said airport workers were struck by the severity of the storm. “As we were looking out the window we were commenting that storm was extremely severe,” he said. “Normally if there are thunderstorms in the area, a pilot may decide to circle until it’s safe to land.”
Chris Yates, an aviation specialist with Jane’s Transport magazine, said weather appeared to be the cause of the accident.
“You can never account for weather. A thunderstorm can happen anywhere — it comes down to the judgment of the air traffic controller and the skill of the pilot to determine whether it’s appropriate to land or to divert elsewhere,” Yates said.
Airport Fire Chief Mike Figliola said three-quarters of the passengers and crew managed to escape in the 52 seconds it took for emergency crews to arrive. “The crew did a great job, they’re trained to get the people off,” Figliola said.
At Air France headquarters in Roissy, France, airline chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta also praised the flight crew. “I don’t know if we should speak of a miracle ... but above all the professionalism of the crew,” Spinetta said.
He said the co-pilot, who was in charge of the landing, had 10,700 hours of flying time, and the 57-year-old pilot had 15,000 hours.
Spinetta said Air France bought the aircraft new on Sept. 7, 1999. It was last serviced July 15 and had logged 28,418 flight-hours and 3,711 takeoffs and landings.
Spinetta said it was too early to determine the cause of the crash, the first of an Airbus A340 in its 13 years of commercial service.
Two dozen Air France officials, including a medical team and a psychologist, flew to Toronto. A separate team of experts — including six from Airbus, three from the French accident investigation bureau and three from Air France — headed to Toronto earlier, Spinetta said.
The first sign of trouble came minutes before landing when the pilot aborted an initial attempt because of the storm and powerful winds. About a minute before the jetliner touched down, the lights in the cabin went out, passenger Olivier Dubois said.
Gwen Dunlop, who was returning from a vacation in France, said some passengers went down emergency chutes, while others jumped from the plane on their own. “We were all trying to go up a hill; it was all mud and we lost our shoes,” she said.
Some of the 297 passengers and 12 crew members reached the nearby highway.
“It was chaotic,” police Sgt. Craig Platt said. “Thankfully, the drivers on highway 401 stopped and offered their assistance.”
David Learmount, an aviation safety expert with British-based Flight International magazine, said the crash appears similar to others in which planes have overshot runways before hitting obstacles or uneven ground — in this case a gully about 300 feet beyond the tarmac.
So-called overruns are “not all that rare,” especially during heavy rainstorms when a plane’s wheels can fail to grip the tarmac, Learmount said.
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