He always insisted he was no hero, but after his fabled landing of a fuel-leaking jetliner in the Azores in 2001, Captain Robert Piché was treated like a hero, making countless speeches and featuring in a bestselling book.
Despite a new report that says his behaviour was not faultless during that famous incident, his reputation is not likely to change.
An accident report released yesterday by Portuguese investigators faulted the Air Transat crew for failing to recognize the plane's fuel loss, which led them to feed the leak with fuel from another tank rather than isolating it.
The report is unlikely to dampen the public perception of Capt. Piché, who has been hailed for his skill in gliding his powerless Airbus A-330 to a safe landing.
It will not, for example, change the mind of Jim Wolter, a retired Calgarian who once sent $100 to Capt. Piché's hometown of Mont-Joli, Que., to help city hall honour him. "Everybody can make a mistake. The guy in my estimation is a hero, getting that plane on the ground with no loss of life," Mr. Wolter said yesterday.
Pixcom, a Montreal production company, is preparing a four-part mini-series to be filmed for CBC and Radio-Canada next year.
Even with the latest report, Capt. Piché's life remains intriguing enough to go ahead with the project, producer André Dupuy said. "It won't change a thing. He has had an eventful life and all he did made him a hero."
Fellow Air Transat pilots came to Capt. Piché's defence yesterday, backing the crew's handling of the leak that imperilled the 306 people on board the trans-Atlantic flight.
"They did a remarkable job, bringing home the plane," Captain Martin Gauthier, head of the Air Transat unit of the Air Line Pilots Association, said in an interview. "Our perception hasn't changed."
While remaining an Air Transat employee, Capt. Piché has made scores of appearances each year as a motivational speaker, giving speeches at schools, fairs, company workshops and even prisons.
An authorized French-language biography sold 66,000 copies, a great hit since any book that sells more than 5,000 copies in francophone Quebec is classified as a bestseller.
The book reveals that six months after he became a public figure, Capt. Piché checked into an alcohol detoxification program, and that he worried that the tiniest future flying mishap would draw media attention. Other revelations about a past brush with the law have helped humanize him, cementing his heroic reputation.
Growing up in the small town of Mont-Joli, Quebec, he plied his trade for regional airlines until, laid off by ailing Québecair, he was reduced to a string of odd jobs in the early 1980s. That included flying for marijuana smugglers, which led to an 18-month stint in a U.S. jail.
The 2001 Air Transat incident stemmed from a series of cascading causes that eventually left Capt. Piché and his co-pilot, Dirk De Jager, facing contradictory information as they tried to deal with a fuel imbalance between the right and left wing tanks, Capt. Gauthier said.
"A leak is one of the hardest problems to identify for a crew," he said. "Unlike a fire, a leak could happen anywhere in the network of fuel lines. The crew had to analyze that and they had very little time to do that."
One of the investigation report's findings notes that "there was not a clear, unambiguous indication or warning that a critical fuel leak existed."
There is a broad consensus that, once the plane's engines died, the crew performed an outstanding feat of flying by gliding the lumbering aircraft for 19 minutes to a safe landing.
Capt. Piché was under a gag order from Air Transat yesterday, though he seemed to be itching to tell his story to reporters who went to his house in Montreal. His critics should have been in the cabin during the incident, he told a Radio-Canada television reporter, refusing, however, to go on air.