A Plane Lost Both Engines So Pilots Had No Other Choice


“Would the lead steward please come to the
flight deck… immediately”. Sounds like one of those in-flight announcements from
a dramatic plane crash movie. No one would ever want to hear this in reality. Unfortunately,
it’s exactly what the passengers on Air Transat Flight 236 heard as their plane ran
out of fuel somewhere above the Atlantic. It was supposed to be a regular flight for
Air Transat from Toronto, Canada, to Lisbon, Portugal. The weather was fine that August
evening, and Flight 236 took off without delays at 8:52 pm. It had 306 people on board; 293
passengers and 13 crew members. Most of the passengers were Canadians, excited about their
summer vacation in Europe, and Portuguese expatriates going to visit their family across
the ocean. The flight captain was Robert Piché, a 48 year-old pro with 16,800 hours of flight
experience. His co-pilot was Dirk DeJager, a 28-year-old who had 4,800 flight hours.
The Airbus A330-243 they operated was fairly new, with only 2 years of active service.
And, with 362 seats, not all of them were full for this flight. It had two powerful
Rolls Royce Trent engines, and, one interesting detail, 5 tons (4.5 tonnes) more fuel than
it required when it took off. There were no red flags, no warning signs of an emergency.
Yet, 8 hours later, when the plan should have touched down in Lisbon, it was nowhere to
be seen. At 04:38 UTC, the right engine of the aircraft
started losing fuel. The pilots didn’t know about it yet.
At 05:03 UTC, after over 4 hours of a totally normal flight, the first alarming message
came through. The onboard computer informed the pilots that the oil temperature had dropped
and the oil pressure was higher than normal on engine 2, that same right engine. The experienced
pilots believed the message to be a false alarm. They informed the maintenance control
center about it but stayed calm, assuming there was no reason to worry.
At 05:36 UTC another warning came through – this time about a fuel imbalance. The
pilots, again, thought it was a false alarm and followed protocol for the situation. They
tried to transfer fuel from the left wing tank to the right wing tank to recover the
imbalance. But that didn’t help because the fuel line was already damaged and the
aircraft was losing fuel at an alarming rate of 1 gallon (3.7 litres) per second. As a
result, the oil temperature continued to drop, and the oil pressure continued to rise. It
was at this time that the pilots realized something must have actually gone wrong and
called the lead steward to the cabin. They asked her to look through one of the passenger
windows to see if the fuel was leaking from under the right wing. But the night sky was
pitch black, and she couldn’t tell. You can imagine what was going on in the pilots’
minds at that moment: an emergency landing with a full tank is always a huge risk, but
ignoring the warnings and continuing with the flight would be an even greater risk.
At 05:45 UTC, the pilots made the decision to divert the plane to the Azores and land
it at Lajes Air Base. 3 minutes later, they informed Santa Maria Oceanic air traffic control
they had a fuel emergency. This message informs ground services that an aircraft has less
fuel than needed to finish the flight. At 06:13 UTC, when the plane was at 39,000
feet (11,880 m) and still 170 miles (273 km) away from Lajes, engine #2 failed completely
from lack of fuel. As scary as it sounds, an Airbus can actually fly on one engine,
and the pilots were well aware of that, of course. But now that they realized the threat
was more than real, they decided to try and save the fuel in engine #1 and shut off the
transfer pump. The plane can’t keep to the same altitude with one engine as with two
of them, so they started gradually descending. Worried that the second engine wouldn’t
last either, the pilots sent a distress call to Santa Maria Oceanic traffic control. They
call it Mayday in aviation. Thirteen minutes later and 75 miles (120 km)
away from the base, engine #1 ran out of fuel, as well. When interviewed about that situation
later, Captain Piché told the reporters: ”When you don’t have that other engine, sooner
or later you’re going to go down, you know”. All that mattered to him was to save the lives
of the passengers and crew. They only had one option now – to glide for the rest of
the distance to the base. Mr. DeJager, who was the co-pilot on Flight 236, remembers
they were flying as if in a simulator dealing with new problems that arose every minute.
It was clearly not a common situation, so they had to think fast and make quick decisions
to control it all somehow. The plane lost its main source of electrical power, but it
still had the emergency ram air turbine. It only produced enough energy to power 30% of
the plane’s systems, and so the flaps, alternate brakes and spoilers all turned off. The intercom
system also shut down, so co-pilot DeJager had to shout safety instructions to the cabin
crew. And as much as the crew wanted to reach the air base, they couldn’t rule out the
possibility of a water landing, and told the passengers to put on life vests. The real
panic in the cabin started when the oxygen masks dropped out at 6:31 UTC. All emergency services were activated on the
ground, waiting for the plane to land safely. The pilots realized they only had 15 to 20
minutes and one attempt to touch down safely and save the passengers. The fact that they
could now see the air base in the distance gave them some hope. The passengers, meanwhile,
were praying to come out of this alive. One of them, who was flying to Lisbon with her
husband, later remembered they grabbed each other’s hands real tight, hoping “not
to fall in the ocean”. The aircraft was barely controllable, gliding
down on small propellers which gave it only minimum hydraulics. The pilots realized it
was going way too high and way too fast for a safe landing. The captain made one 360 degree
turn and a few “S” turns to get at least somewhat lower. You can only imagine the panic
in the cabin at that time: the worst nightmare of any aerophobe was coming true. At 06:45 UTC, the plane finally touched ground
at the airbase, but it wasn’t exactly a smooth landing. They were coming in too fast,
and even though the pilots used emergency braking, the plane only stopped 7,600 feet
(2,316 m) from the threshold of a runway that was 10,000 feet (3,048 m) long. The anti-skid
and brake modulation systems were all off, eight out of 10 wheels locked up and tires
were exploding one by one. At this point, as one passenger recalls, some people were
applauding the pilots, and others were sobbing. They all had two things in common: shock and
terror. Some people were so paralyzed by fear, they needed help getting off the plane. Believe
it or not, the plane, with two dead engines and no fuel, glided for 75 miles (120 km)
and landed safely. The crew of Air Transat 236 was the first in history to ever pull
off a landing like this. 14 passengers and two crew members needed some medical help,
and two people got seriously injured during the evacuation. But the most important thing
was that no one died on that flight! The pilots were heroes who saved hundreds
of lives. But, it was extremely important that they find out how they got into this
situation to begin with. The Aviation Accidents Prevention and Investigation Department of
Portugal, together with the Canadian and French authorities started the investigation. It
turned out that just five days before the incident, on August 19, 2001, maintenance
staff installed a new right engine. It didn’t come with a hydraulic pump, so they decided
to take one from a similar engine and attach it to the new one. That was, of course, contrary
to manufacturers’ instructions. And even though the difference was insignificant to
the human eye, you now know what it all led to. There was a leak in the fuel hose, and
it could have killed 306 people! When Air Transat admitted their fault, the Canadian
government fined them around $250,000, which was the largest fine in the history of Canada
as of 2009. A few months after the incident, when the
aircraft had been repaired, it resumed flights with Air Transit and was nicknamed “Azores
glider”. And, as of December 2018, it’s still active, with a different airline. The miracle that happened over the Atlantic,
thanks to the professionalism of the crew, inspired an episode of a Canadian TV show,
Mayday. The episode aired in 2003 and was called “Flying on Empty”. In 2010, a biographical
drama about the pilot, Robert Piché came out, named Piché: The Landing of a Man. Are you afraid of flying, or do you enjoy
it? Let me know down in the comments! If you learned something new today, then give this
video a like and share it with a friend. But – hey! – don’t go anywhere just yet!
We have over 2,000 cool videos for you to check out. All you have to do is pick the
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