Ask the pilot

Media madness from Toronto: God, lightning and the quasi-crash of Air France flight 358.


Patrick Smith
August 12, 2005 11:30PM (UTC)

When Air France flight 358 went flailing into a ravine last Tuesday at Pearson International Airport, everything and nothing changed.

More than three and a half years had elapsed since the last major airliner crash on North American soil. Such marathons of fortune breed not only a sense of trust and security, but a certain hubris and delusive feelings of invulnerability. There were those of us who, after the passing of every accident-free day, eyed the morning's headline with a growing tension. Flying, as anybody could see, was safer than ever, and no single catastrophe was going to change that. But sooner or later the streak would be over.

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Then came the French Airbus, barreling out of ink-dark thunder sky and onto the rainswept tarmac, and suddenly the string was out.

Or was it? After all, every one of the ship's 309 occupants made it to safety. Does the wreckage itself -- $100 million worth of shattered and flaming machinery -- reset the clock? Apparently it does. Despite lack of a death toll, the event garnered more attention than either of the commuter turboprop crashes that smear our otherwise perfect record dating back to autumn of 2001. Thirty-four people were killed in those events -- 21 in Charlotte, N.C., in 2003, and 13 more near Kirksville, Mo., last year -- but neither stole headlines for more than half a day.

Coverage from Toronto was expectedly maudlin. In the absence of any quantitative gore, the focus quickly shifted to heroics of the first responders and weepy interviews with passengers.

None of these segments was more nauseating than the melodrama presented by CNN's Aaron Brown last Wednesday evening. "Miracle" is a word plucked from context at considerable risk, and when a survivor made use of the term in an otherwise matter-of-fact reference, Brown seized, repeating the noun at least three times in a rich, groaning whisper of incredulity -- "a miracle." He wasn't shy about it, infusing the word with a boldly spiritual oomph. Brown's next guest may as well have been a Catholic priest. "Tell me, Father, did we witness a full-blown miracle in that Canadian gully?" The piece had everything except heavenly harp music and a choir of angels.

The pretense of supernatural intervention is tedious and insulting to those whose job it is to investigate airline accidents, and also to the thousands of victims of prior crashes who weren't so lucky.

And those aboard flight 358 aren't the only blessed ones. The annals of aviation are rich with near misses and unlikely survival. Possibly Brown has it backward: If you're going to play the miracle card, what of 4-year-old Cecelia Cichan, for instance, the only one of 155 passengers and crew to emerge alive from a Northwest Airlines MD-80 at Detroit in 1987? What of the four people who survived Japan Airlines flight 123, in which 520 others perished -- the worst single-aircraft accident in aviation history?

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The question isn't why everyone in Toronto made it to safety, but how. You're free to credit anybody, from God of the Bible to the ghost of Charles de Gaulle, but I'll take the earthly road and tip my pilot hat to the Air France cabin crew, and also make note of the many safety enhancements on the state-of-the-art A340 -- flame resistant cabin furnishings, for one -- that helped supply ample time for escape.

For those prone to ignore the babble of the pre-flight safety demo, Toronto should be lesson enough to adjust your habits and start paying attention. At the very least, know where the exits are. (Indeed, many of the questions and answers addressed in this space over the past three years were manifest in the final careening seconds of flight 358: Why must my window shades be up? Why must the tray tables be stowed, and the seats fully upright? Why are the cabin lights dimmed? And so on.)

Meanwhile, when it wasn't milking tears from survivors and paramedics, media coverage offered its standard post-crash gamut, ranging from serviceably accurate to totally irresponsible. Among the better stories was an Aug. 5 report from Paul Koring at Toronto's Globe and Mail. Koring does a respectable job of explaining go-arounds and runway terminology without the usual distortions or caricatures.

At the other extreme is the Associated Press, which published the following, carried by New York Times.com and other major outlets:

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"Toronto's airport was under 'red alert' because of the threat of lightning when an Air France jetliner crash-landed in a fierce rainstorm, despite having enough fuel to reach another airport -- a decision that was made by the pilot, airport authorities said yesterday."

That's a fairly salacious intro, hinging on the dangerous-sounding "red alert" and a suggestion of recklessness on the part of the Air France crew. In truth there is no such thing as a "red alert" in any pilot's lexicon. I'd never heard the phrase before Duff-Brown told me about it. After some digging, it turns out to be a code used by airport ground staff. When electrical storms loom, apron personnel are often summoned indoors for safety.

The story suggests that nearby presence of electrical activity should have made it obvious to the Air France captain that landing was a bad idea, and that's simply not true. (Note: Numerous other planes landed during the half-hour or so prior to flight 358.) Furthermore, per regulation there is always "enough fuel to reach another airport" -- and often a third or fourth airport as well. To date there is nothing known about the crash that indicates a diversion should have been initiated. And if so, that's a decision made by the captain, in cooperation with the airline's flight controllers back in Paris.

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Nearly all of the early dispatches, including Duff-Brown's, made prominent mention of lightning in the vicinity of Pearson at the time of the incident. To the layperson, aircraft and lightning would seem a perilous mix. After all, lightning nips a house and seconds later the attic is on fire. But unlike most houses, aircraft are constructed with strikes in mind. A plane's aluminum skin is an excellent electrical conductor, and whether airborne or on the ground, the energy is quickly discharged, in most cases with no ill effects. On average, a given plane will be struck by lightning about once every two years. A hit will sometimes foul an electrical system or cause superficial skin damage, but there have only been a handful of crashes worldwide directly attributed to lightning. The last one in North America, and also the most catastrophic, involved a fuel tank explosion aboard a Pan Am 707 in 1963. Accounts of the Air France cabin going dark during approach -- blamed on lightning by a number of passengers -- was likely the routine dimming of the lights by the flight attendants.

Over at USA Today, Alan Levin gets a hand for a workmanlike effort at getting things straight. Both his Aug. 3 headline feature and an above-the-fold sequel the following day were, for the most part, accurately researched, though here too I winced a few times.

First Levin reminds us of that 45-month crashless streak, now (sort of) broken. The Air France mishap is our worst since American Airlines flight 587 went down near Kennedy airport in November 2001. In Levin's words, that was a disaster "caused by a pilot who rapidly moved the jet's rudder from side to side." That's one way of putting it. And the Titanic sinking was "caused by a captain who hit an iceberg."

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He then goes on to quote a Canadian meteorologist, William Hepburn, who explains that weather conditions at the time of flight 358's arrival "would have produced a close to dead-on crosswind." That certainly sounds ominous, except that crosswinds come from the side, making "dead-on" a peculiar choice of phraseology -- presumably he meant "90 degrees" -- and every airplane has a different allowable maximum based on velocity and angle of the gusts. No offense to Hepburn's climatological acumen, but are we to believe he's familiar with the crosswind component charts of the Airbus A340-300? Gusts may have played a role by exacerbating a more serious matter (more on that next week), but planes operate in crosswinds -- even the fully perpendicular "dead-on" variety -- all the time.

Then comes this, from the occupant of seat 17B. "We saw flames from the left engine." Seeing how the A340 has four engines, two per wing, was that the left-left engine, or had one of them fallen off?

Puzzling, but forgivable. More egregious was the Aug. 4 edition of London's Daily Mirror, which spoke of "the Airbus A340's twin tail-mounted engines." The Toronto Star echoed this engines-on-the-tail assertion. It's a head-scratcher. Airbus has produced five baseline aircraft since the early 1970s, and not one of them is equipped with tail-mounted engines.

But what about those flames? Although eyewitness accounts are notoriously unsound and inconsistent, there is a possible explanation. Realizing they were running out of asphalt, the crew may have applied an inordinate dose of reverse thrust, beyond the engines' normal limits to the point of internal damage or compressor stall. High crosswinds can increase the likelihood of compressor stalls, and while not normally dangerous, they're accompanied by loud bangs and, occasionally, bursts of flame.

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Yet another buzzword hovering around the Air France wreckage: "wind shear." It's noteworthy that Aug. 2 was the 20th anniversary of our last major wind-shear crash -- that of a Delta Air Lines L-1011 in Dallas. How startlingly ironic if wind shear lent a dastardly hand in Toronto as well, simultaneously underscoring both the dangers of shear and our admirable successes at predicting and avoiding it.

By definition, wind shear is a sudden change in the direction and/or velocity of the wind. Though garden variety shears are very common and rarely harmful, a particularly virulent form, called a microburst, is more serious. Microbursts are localized, downward-flowing columns of air, typically encountered at low altitudes -- even while still on the runway -- beneath the leading edges of storm fronts. As the air mass descends, it disperses outward in all directions. Planes are not "slammed to the ground," as you'll read elsewhere, but can suffer dangerous airspeed loss if a headwind suddenly shears to a tailwind during takeoff or landing. Microbursts were accountable for the Dallas disaster in '85, and the prior crashes of Eastern 77 and Pan Am 759, in New York (1975) and New Orleans (1982), respectively. That trio of tragedies helped usher in a new generation of wind-shear avoidance technology. Today, many large airports are equipped with sophisticated alerting systems, as are modern cockpits.

Toronto's Pearson International is not one of those airports, and conditions at the time of Air France's arrival were prime for microburst activity. Hence all the talk of wind shear in the press and on TV. At this juncture, however, there's no actual evidence of wind shear having been a factor.

So, now that we have a grasp of what didn't happen, how about what did happen? Why and how did the A340 go careening off the runway?

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For that, tune in next time.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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