The 291 passengers aboard Air Transat Flight 236 were having breakfast thousands of metres above the Atlantic yesterday when flight attendants rushed to gather their dishes.
A voice from overhead speakers told them to remove their shoes and grab the lifejackets beneath their seats. Oxygen masks fell from the ceiling.
The twin-engine Airbus A330-200, headed for Lisbon from Toronto, was about to end its flight in a tire-bursting emergency touchdown in the Azores, about 1,300 kilometres from its destination, with both engines dead.
"It was all surreal," said Daniel Rodrigues, a 24-year-old student helicopter pilot from Toronto. "We had the crew on board running around, yelling at each other and yelling at passengers."
The English instructions over the loudspeakers were calm and reassuring, he told CTV Newsnet. "But by contrast in the Portuguese message, you could hear the hesitation, the anxiety, almost the forming of tears. . . . That caused havoc on the plane. Older people were praying out loud and crying to God."
The plane's turbofan engines, normally capable of delivering about 135,000 pounds of thrust, fell silent.
"I heard the engines cut out," said Agostinho Romeiro, 57, recalling that "I thought of my daughters I left behind."
"I kept thinking back to all the plane-crash movies," said Vasco Dos Santos, 18, a high-school student in Vaughan, Ont.
Everyone aboard survived one of the rarest of aviation events, a no-power glide to earth by a modern jetliner.
It was not immediately clear how far the Airbus glided or why the engines stopped. One explanation would be a lack of fuel.
Veteran pilots praised the crew's skill and stressed that there are no second chances in such situations. The best-known previous case was the so-called Gimli Glider, an Edmonton-bound Air Canada Boeing 767 that ran out of fuel over northwestern Ontario and landed safely on a drag-racing strip at a former airbase near the Manitoba town of Gimli in 1983.
"It's an amazing feat to be able to take an aircraft that doesn't have any thrust and plant it on the end of a runway, especially a short runway," a senior airline captain said. "It's a test that I hope never to have to face. You get one shot."
After the near disaster, Transport Canada restricted Air Transat's three A330s to flights in which they are never more than 60 minutes from an airport, until it is satisfied that no safety problems exist.
Air Transat spokesman Michel Lemay said the restrictions would add to flying times.
According to the Transport Canada Web site, Air Transat was cited in four violation reports in 1999 and 2000 and fined $1,250 in each case. The violations involved such things as installing parts certified for an L-1011 on an Airbus and for operating an aircraft without the required number of flight attendants. For the same period, there were no such violation reports for Air Canada or Canadian Airlines.
However, a Transport Canada official said the 14-year-old airline has an excellent safety record and has never had a fatal accident or lost an aircraft.
The A330, introduced in the early 1990s, is one of the most modern airliners flying, and the one that glided to earth yesterday had been in service only since 1999.
Mr. Lemay said the company doesn't know why the engines stopped or how long the plane stayed aloft without power. "But the word 'gliding' is accurate," he said.
At some point, he said, the captain reassured passengers that they weren't going to land on water. He had found one of the few landing strips in the middle of the ocean.
The plane hit the runway at a U.S. air base at Lajes on Terceira, a Portuguese island in the Azores, around 2:45 a.m. EDT.
For about seven minutes, Mr. Rodrigues recalled, passengers felt the queasy sensation of falling as they descended at thousands of feet a minute.
The landing was not soft. One or more tires burst and there were reports that friction caused small fires that were quickly extinguished. Some reports said fuel or another fluid spilled on the runway.
Mr. Rodrigues said the landing gear gouged so deeply into the tarmac that work crews had difficulty removing the plane from the strip.
Mr. Romeiro would later tell his daughters that the impact gave him whiplash and his wife's legs were injured when her seat collapsed.
But all the passengers were able to scramble out of the plane, sliding down inflatable chutes. Air Transat said 10 people were slightly hurt. News reports said there were sprained ankles, dislocated shoulders and strained backs.
The passengers were cared for by airport officials and U.S. military staff. A few, including Mr. Romeiro and a man who needed help for a heart ailment, were taken to Angra do Heroismo hospital.
Mr. Romeiro called his daughters in Bradford, Ont., around 9 a.m. yesterday to tell them he and his wife would remain in hospital.
"My mother's legs were hurt when her seat fell apart, and then she slid down during the evacuation and got hurt again," Sarah Romeiro, 17, said.
Sarah Olivieri's sister Claudia, 27, was on the plane with their aunt and uncle.
"My sister called collect early in the morning," said Ms. Olivieri, 19, of Mississauga. "She was crying. She said, 'I don't have my shoes and I'm lucky to be alive, I was almost in a plane crash.' "
Most of the passengers were loaded onto ferries for a five-hour ride to another airport on a nearby island, where they were to board another Air Transat plane and continue to Portugal.
"As soon as we heard, our executives got on a plane to pick them up," Mr. Lemay said. Several counsellors, psychotherapists and nurses are also aboard the second plane, Mr. Lemay said, to treat traumatized passengers.
But after waiting more than 10 hours on the small island, some passengers said they weren't impressed by the airline's response. "There aren't any Air Transat representatives who have spoken to us," Mr. Rodrigues said.
"I was supposed to fly home today, but nothing can get off the runway," said John Remley, a tourist from Vancouver, Wash. "Still, those people were pretty lucky."
There is no question the outcome could have been different.
Captain Don Hudson, who flies a different Airbus model for another airline, said the big planes will glide about three miles for every 1,000 feet of height with engines at idle, somewhat less with engines dead. He could not say exactly how far. "I don't know. I've never done it."
Capt. Hudson's formula suggests that a pilot whose engines quit at a cruising altitude of 41,000 feet would need to find an island -- and a landing strip -- within 120 miles or less.
To land safely, the pilot would have to do many other things exactly right, he said. "You want to judge the rate of descent properly so that, obviously, you're not too low and not too high for the aiming point."
There is no way to regain height if you miscalculate, he said. "The only way to go faster is to put the nose down, and you lose altitude that way."
In his words, it was a significant piloting challenge. "The media always describe these things as a miracle. I don't believe in miracles. I believe in skill and professionalism. The crew that did this was probably very skilled."
Another senior captain, who asked not to be identified, said the incident was virtually unprecedented in transoceanic flights.
"There obviously could have been a catastrophe," killing all 291 passengers and 13 crew, he said.
"Any type of fuel starvation, any type of engine failure is extremely rare. To have engine failure is extremely rare. There have been only a few of those in the entire history of aviation on multiengine aircraft on transatlantic operations. To have total engine failure is almost unheard of."
That view was endorsed by Art LaFlamme, director-general of civil aviation for Transport Canada.
"This is the first [over-ocean]incident I'm aware of involving a total loss of engine power," he said. "Certainly, it's not comforting to know that it's one of ours, so we want to follow up and make sure this doesn't happen again."
In the Gimli case, confusion over metric fuel measurement was partly to blame for too little fuel being loaded when the airliner was being prepared for departure in Montreal for a flight to Edmonton.
Mr. LaFlamme said there was reason to think the Air Transat plane lacked fuel.
"There appears to have been a problem with one engine, leading to problems with another engine. What the causes of those problems are will have to be determined by the investigation, and we'll take action as soon as we find out."
Air Transat's Mr. Lemay would not suggest a cause. "It's too early to say if it's an engine problem or a fuel problem or another problem. Based on the information I have, the plane was properly fuelled when it left Canada."
The Portuguese news agency Lusa said the aircraft developed a fuel leak during the flight.
The agency quoted an airport official as saying: "They had 10 minutes of fuel and were 20 minutes away of arriving. . . . He reached the runway without the engines and made the landing. He had to pull very hard on the brakes, so he made a little fire in the tires and made some damage on the runway."
The airline captain quoted earlier explained the emergency manoeuvre:
"If you have total fuel starvation, you have no operating engines. The only option left for you is to glide the aircraft to the ground and to have the aircraft arrive preferably at the beginning of the runway.
"You don't have reverse thrust available to you, either. So the only available braking mechanism to you is the mechanical brakes and aerodynamic drag for the flaps and the spoilers. You would use the maximum braking in any emergency-landing situation. In this situation, the object of the exercise is to get the aircraft stopped in a safe manner as quickly as possible.
"My expectation is that they would have used full, maximum braking permissible."
The A330 is the largest twinjet manufactured by Airbus. The wide-bodied plane carries 295 to 440 passengers in its 63.7-metre fuselage. It can fly up to 9,820 kilometres at speeds of 880 kilometres per hour. It is nearly identical to the four-engine A340 with which it was designed concurrently.
The Ottawa-based federal Transportation Safety Board has on record three accidents of A-330s in Canadian airspace over the past five years: the Air Transat Azores case; an Aer Lingus aircraft in which a passenger was seriously injured due to turbulence in January; and a Canada 3000 aircraft from which an engine cover fell off in March in Vancouver.
The A-330 in the Air Transat incident has 10,000 flight hours and a perfect operating record, Mr. Lemay said.
The gravity of the incident was underlined byTransport Canada's immediate dispatch of a ministerial observer and a team of specialists to the Azores.
Under international aviation agreements, the responsibility for investigating the accident lies with the Portuguese aviation authorities.
Meanwhile, Transport Canada has suspended Air Transat's authority to operate its three Airbus 330s over an extended range. This means that Air Transat will have to change the overseas routes of its Airbus aircraft so that they fly no further than 60 minutes from airports along the way, a condition that likely will make their flights more costly. As well, Transport Canada is launching an audit of Air Transat's maintenance and operations and will step up surveillance "to ensure compliance with all Canadian aviation regulations."
Getting a clear handle on Air Transat's safety record is not easy because no agency compiles a readily accessible method of determining a safety rating.
Mr. Lemay said that in 14 years of operation Air Transat has had only three emergency evacuations, including the Azores one. A week ago, a Lockheed L-1011 carrying 324 passengers and 14 crew to Toronto had to be cleared of passengers at Orlando's international airport after an air-conditioning unit malfunctioned and some smoke entered the plane's cabin. As well, five or six years ago, there was another emergency clearing of an Air Transat aircraft at Gatwick airport in England.
"When you compare the ratios of Air Transat at this point with other carriers, including obviously regular carriers, Air Transat is high above average," Mr. Lemay said. "So the safety record is good."
Jim Harris, spokesman for the Transportation Safety Board, said that since 1996 there have been two accidents (defined as an incident involving damage to an aircraft or serious personal injury) of Air Transat aircraft.
The first was in July when a L-1011 flying out of Lyon in France had to return after being damaged by hailstones. The second was the Azores accident.
Transport Canada's Mr. Laflamme said: "We do monitor reports on airliners and follow up, but we don't have any indication of any systemic problems involving their accident record."
Air Transat specializes in charter flights from several Canadian and European cities to vacation destinations, mainly in the south during the winter months and in Europe and Canada during the summer.
It has a fleet of of 23 aircraft and serves 90 destinations in 25 countries. It employs 2,500 people. In 2000, Transat said, it carried 3.5 million passengers.
Air Transat is a subsidiary of Transat A. T. Inc., the self-proclaimed leader in Canada's holiday-travel industry.
With reports from John Saunders and Canadian Press