Passengers aboard Air Canada flight 624 narrowly escaped disaster when their aircraft slammed into the ground 335 metres before the start of the runway at Halifax Stanfield International Airport.
Pilots of the Airbus A320 with 133 passengers and five crew members were attempting to land in a snowstorm with high winds, low cloud and limited visibility around 12:40 a.m. Sunday when it crashed short of the runway and skidded on to it.
Twenty-four people were treated Sunday for minor cuts, bumps and bruises. One other person remained in hospital with injuries not considered life-threatening, an airline official said.
"They touched down 1,100 feet short of the runway, so I'd say they were pretty lucky," said Mike Cunningham, the regional manager for the Transportation Safety Board.
"From there, the aircraft continued forward onto the runway itself. It was on its belly at that point. The aircraft skidded along the asphalt runway for about [another] 1,100 feet, before it came to a stop."
The extent of the passengers' luck could be measured over a field of wreckage 700 metres long. One engine broke off while another was pulverized. A wing was smashed and passengers reported puddles of fuel on the ground that somehow did not ignite in the shower of sparks as the plane scraped along the runway.
TSB and Air Canada officials were surveying the damage and said it was too early in the investigation to say why the pilots were flying so low. The officials did not report any distress signal or indications of mechanical failure before contact with the ground.
Investigators will want to know whether the aircraft was deliberately flown below the decision height at which regulations require crews to pull up and go around if they can't see the runway.
Investigators will listen to flight recorders, which have already been recovered, to see what the pilots said about diversion to another airport or whether low fuel reserves or other factors added urgency to a landing attempt in marginal weather. They will also listen for clues about how focused the pilots were on a demanding landing. They will also attempt to determine if wind shear or mechanical failure was responsible for the A320 hitting the ground well before the landing zone on the runway.
Passengers said there was little indication of a problem until the plane crashed.
"Everyone was organized for a normal landing. There was no one that said, 'Brace yourself.' There was none of that," said Lianne Clark, who was returning from a vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, with her husband, Randy Hall.
Around midnight, toward the tail end of an uneventful flight from Toronto, the aircraft descended to 9,000 feet and started circling while one of the two pilots informed passengers they were waiting for better visibility and for the cloud ceiling to lift at Halifax to allow a landing. The pilot also warned he may have to divert the flight to an alternate airport in Moncton, N.B., to refuel and wait for better weather if conditions were not satisfactory. It was all routine.
After a little more than 30 minutes, passengers say one of the pilots announced conditions had improved and they would attempt a landing. "It felt like he was going to try, and if it didn't work, he'd just abort," according to passenger Denis Lavoie, who said he went through a similar flight to Halifax a few weeks ago that also had to divert due to bad weather.
Mr. Lavoie, a frequent flier, said the weather on the final approach "felt like something I've landed in before." He said he could see lights on the ground from his window.
Aviation weather reports from midnight and 12:13 a.m. showed improving visibility. Airline officials said conditions were within limits. "It was safe to fly in this weather. The aircraft did circle for a period of time, but when the approach was initiated, the weather was at the approach minimums," said Klaus Goersch, Air Canada's chief operating officer.
TSB officials declined to confirm Air Canada's assertion that flight conditions were acceptable, saying the investigation is just starting. Several hundred metres before the runway threshold, outside the airport grounds and down a slope, the plane clipped a power line, knocking out power to the airport. In the aircraft, it was the first sign of trouble. Ms. Clark said she felt a vibration. "That's when I said to my husband, 'Oh, this doesn't seem right.' And then we hit very, very hard, the first time," she said.
Mike Magnus, a 60-year-old frequent business traveller, said he could hear the engines power up just before the Airbus hit the snow-covered ground. "The pilot seemed to realize real fast he was going to pull up short of the runway," Mr. Magnus said. "He just hit full throttle. We hit the ground first real hard and then came back down right on the nose."
The plane knocked out an array of orange antennas that send out signals for instrument landings. Some passengers said it felt like a normal hard landing. Others could see sparks and a bright flash as pieces flew off the aircraft, including at least one set of landing gear, the plane's nose cone and a number of other parts.
"At first it felt like, 'Wow, that was a quick drop down.' But when we bounced and when we hit a second time and then all the lights changed, then I knew we were really in trouble," said Gordon Murray, a 54-year-old frequent traveller who works in the insurance business.
The aircraft skidded for "what seemed like an eternity," according to Mr. Magnus, who described passengers screaming and babies crying as the oxygen masks deployed and "all hell broke loose." Mr. Hall saw an engine rip off. Several passengers said they were just waiting for the aircraft to burst into flames.
The aircraft slid 335 metres on the snow and an additional 335 metres on the runway before finally coming to a rest.
"The crash may have been caused by the storm and the snow and heavy winds, but I think the snow is also what saved us. When the engine broke off and the wings were dragging on the ground and the fuel was spilling out, it kept the friction to a minimum," Mr. Magnus said. There were still a lot of sparks, he added, along with the smell of hot metal and jet fuel.
The passengers and crew left behind most of their belongings, including coats and shoes in many cases, as they fled down rubber emergency slides into the pitch-black night at the airport, which had lost electricity. Most of them ran as fast as they could. They could see and smell a liquid they believed to be fuel on the ground.
"But people still followed instructions and were very polite," said Mr. Lavoie. "That's people from the Maritimes for you."
Officials say firefighters were on the scene within 90 seconds, although several passengers say it felt longer. Many passengers were cut up from hitting their heads on impact. The two pilots "looked like they'd bashed their faces pretty good, and one of them seemed to have broken ribs," Mr. Magnus said.
The passengers and crew then spent nearly an hour standing on the tarmac in the freezing temperatures and falling snow as they waited for transportation to the terminal nearly two kilometres away. They could not see the terminal because of the blackout.
Some elderly passengers and others with small children took shelter in the limited seats of the emergency-response vehicles.
"I was standing next to a 65-year-old guy in a T-shirt whose glasses had exploded in his face and had a cut forehead," Mr. Lavoie said. "The stewardesses did a great job, the emergency responders did what they could, but for me, the airport's crisis management was pretty bad."
Eventually, tarps were brought out to shelter the passengers from the wind. They were finally taken to a hangar, and then a nearby airport.
Runway 05, where the accident took place, was equipped with an instrument landing system from decades ago, which included a localizer to help the pilot line up for landing that was wiped out in the crash. Unlike other runways at the airport, there was no glideslope, another part of instrument landing systems that helps pilots find the right angle of descent for landing.
Airport spokesman Peter Spurway confirmed runway 05 was in use because of the 50-kilometre-an-hour winds with higher gusts blowing from the north. The system allows pilots to land in bad weather, but they are a far cry from the nearly automated systems available to the most modern jetliners and airports. The Halifax setup, with different levels of instrument landing systems on different runways, is not unusual for medium-sized Canadian airports, but it relies on skilled pilots making good decisions.
Mr. Cunningham, the TSB investigator, said ultimately the pilot must decide if conditions allow for the landing. Mr. Goersch said the pilots each had about 15 years of experience.
Some of the passengers appeared to take the accident in stride by Sunday afternoon. Mr. Lavoie said he flies often and will continue to do so. "The odds are even more strongly in my favour now," he said.
The flight home to Halifax was one week after the wedding of Mr. Magnus, who flies 150,000 miles a year for his aquaculture company. Mr. Magnus, 60, said he doesn't plan to cancel his honeymoon plans to fly to France in June, but he will reconsider a business trip next week. "We'll see how I feel. Sometimes it's better to take a break."
With reports from Renata D'Aliesio, Joe Friesen and Paul Koring