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Air France Airbus Crashes in Toronto Airport

Aired August 2, 2005 - 17:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, HOST: John Wiley, you want to elaborate on that point?
JOHN WILEY, RETIRED AIRBUS PILOT: A burst can be extremely localized and it can be extremely violent. And once the microburst unfolds, you're basically in conditions that no passenger aircraft that we have seen, with the exception of those that are using predictive wind sheer, you just are not going to be able to fly out of it. You're not going to have the performance to do it.

Now, one of the things that is good about the Airbus philosophy is the Airbus philosophy has what's called an envelope protection. And that is that you cannot stall the airplane. So in a reaction of a go around, or a wind sheer escape, you'll basically slam the power full forward to go around thrust to max thrust, and then you pull all the way back on the stick without fear of being able to stall the airplane. The airplane will go to max AOA, as we refer to, max angle of attack, which is the best performance that you can get out of the airplane.

So if these guys were trying to conduct a go around and end this, and in fact, they wound up hitting the runway, we have to assume that this was an incredible microburst.

The other thing is, is that, with the microburst, they can be occurring on one small part of the airfield and the rest of the airfield would be basically operations as normal. The control tower will tell people when there are wind sheer alerts because of the information that they are garnering from various satellite receivers in and around the airport.

O'BRIEN: It's interesting you should mention that, John, that when a pilot pulls back completely on this particular aircraft's control stick, that's something they teach you not to do, because by pointing the nose that high, you can make matters worse. In this case, you say the computers sort of take over and intervene and don't allow the pilot to overcorrect?

WILEY: Well, it's not so much that the computers intervene, Miles, as much as this is what the airplane was designed to do, and it's a form of protection.

We're not talking about fighters. We're not talking about air combat. What we're talking about is a vehicle to -- that's intended to safely take people from point A to point B lots and lots of times.

So in case you run into these unusual circumstances, and we look at the air safety examples, and we find out it's an extremely safe environment. We occasionally have these crashes.

But the training is such that with this airplane, what's called the fly-by-wire family at Airbus, which includes the 320, which is a narrow body aircraft, the 330 and 340, which are a wide-body aircraft and are generally used transatlantic, et cetera. Those aircraft are all similar with this envelope protection that when you get into a situation where you need max performance from the airplane, your natural reaction, which may overwhelm your training, is to come back on the stick.

And you can, in fact, on this airplane come all the way back to the stick. The airplane will pitch up and go to, as I said, max angle of attack for max performance, giving you everything that you've got to be able to get the airplane out of the situation.

WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR: Miles, it's Wolf in Washington. Let me just alert our viewers. We're standing by for a news conference that has been called by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. We will go to that news conference with all the latest information as soon as it happens in Toronto.

This is Pearson International Airport, Toronto's main airport. What we're watching is the aftermath of an Air France Airbus 340, Air France Flight 358, that left Paris at 1:32, was scheduled to land at 4:12.

This is a picture of this aircraft that we're getting from the Air France Web site now, an Airbus 340. This aircraft has now veered off the runway in bad weather, severe thunderstorms, lightning, and has crashed into this wooded area, this area remote off the runway at Pearson International Airport.

We don't have a lot of additional information. And there's no word, repeat no word on casualties, the extent of the -- the number of passengers and crew members aboard this plane. But it's a significant plane. It's a wide body Airbus 340 making this transatlantic flight between Paris and Toronto.

Miles, as you look at these pictures, and I know you were gloomy in your initial assessment, based on what you know on these emergency kinds of landings, the only bright spot I can see is that this plane had made a long flight, a transatlantic flight, and so presumably the amount of fuel aboard this aircraft was -- they were getting close to the end, I assume, after a long flight like that. Wouldn't that be better for this kind of a situation?

O'BRIEN: Well, I can tell you this, Wolf. There is a subtle psychology which a lot of aviation instructors try to guard all pilots against, and that is that the colloquialism is "get-there-itis." In other words, maybe I can just get through this and get on the ground and the end of the day has arrived.

I mean, the runway, there's the runway in sight. You can see the numbers. And you might think you can get through this. You have a marvelous machine with all kinds of capability. And that's part of the thinking that goes into -- and a lot of analysis of these accidents gets into that whole notion of what the crew was thinking at the time. And we talked a little while ago about fatigue issues and that sort of thing.

I should tell you parenthetically, Wolf, it was literally, it was 20 years ago on this very day, a strange coincidence, when that Dallas/Fort Worth accident occurred that we were telling you about. That Delta Airlines Flight 191 crashed, 163 passengers and crew on board, approaching Dallas.

There was a rain shaft and scattered lightning. They came through a thunderstorm cell in the final approach path. The pilots decided the weather was passable. Continued the approach, 15-30 seconds later, entered the weather, and they crashed.

We should point out these microbursts, what can happen, Wolf, is literally the wind, the force of the wind can come straight down to the ground. And what it does -- you can imagine sort of an upside down mushroom cloud of wind. And what that can do is cause a very strong head wind going into it, which the pilot compensates for one way by changing the power settings, easing off on the power typically. And then it gets to the back end where it becomes suddenly a tail wind. And so when they get to that tail wind, with less power, they are in a really bad situation, because they don't have enough power and altitude.

So that's what's so insidious about these microbursts, is that they create this divergence of wind directions in short order and a big change at a most critical time of flight, when you're low and slow and about to touchdown.

BLITZER: We're told by wire reports, news reports, that this kind of Airbus 340 is configured for about 252 passengers, plus crew members, which is a significant number. We don't know at this point how many people were aboard this plane, and we certainly at this point don't know anything at all about casualties.

But we are awaiting a news conference from the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, where presumably we'll get some more information about what has happened.

What we do know is not pretty, and our viewers can see the smoke billowing from this aircraft, this Airbus 340 that has crashed attempting to land in very bad weather at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

That's an eerie thought, Miles. Ten years ago exactly to this day, there was that wind sheer which caused that Delta flight to crash as it was attempting to land at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

O'BRIEN: Actually, 20 years ago, Wolf, but the years go by. And I'm reading a little bit more about it.

I was telling you about that difference in wind directions. It goes from a head wind to a tail wind very quickly. What happened was they had about a 26 knot increase, about 30 mile an hour increase in the head wind. And as it went through the wind sheer -- remember, I came up, tried to envision the wind coming straight down to the ground, hitting the ground and then kind of buffeting outward. And if you fly right through it, you get the head wind right into the tail wind.

In any case, it switched to a 46 knot tail wind almost instantly in that case. So they had a 72 knot swing of effective air speed over the wings. I don't want to confuse people about this, but the wings don't know how fast you're going over the ground. The wings know how fast you're going through the air, and the wind has a lot to do with that.

So with wind coming in your teeth, that gives you an effective increase of speed of air over the wings. Just the opposite on a tail wind. So to go from that strong a head wind to that strong a tail wind in short order, when you're inside 800 feet or even less, at your approach speeds, you have absolutely -- you can end up with no options very quickly if you're a crew that goes through that kind of situation.

BLITZER: Miles, I want you and our viewers to take -- take a look now what we're going to show you on the left side of the screen. This is a clip of something that just occurred. The fireball about eight, nine minutes ago. Watch this.

All right. That's -- you saw that fireball. Maybe we can rewind that. And we're going to show it now on full screen. Watch this.

All right. That fireball, that is an ominous, ominous sight, Miles.

O'BRIEN: It is. And you know, you can't help but be saddened by that sight and be taken aback by that sight, Wolf, because if this scenario has unfolded as we have speculated, you know, almost instantly here, and there could be many other explanations, but this certainly would be a leading explanation.

In the case of the Dallas/Fort Worth crash, 20 years ago, no one survived that crash. It's just not in the category of survivable and nonsurvivable crashes. It is, unfortunately, one of those that is really in the latter, because of the nature of this accident.

BLITZER: Is it the fire that kills the people or the smoke inside the cabin?

O'BRIEN: Well, you know, that's -- that is hard to say in this case with explosions like that. It might be the former. It could be just the sudden impact, as well, you know, blunt trauma.

But in any case, these are not situations that are the kinds of things that you're trained to run to the emergency exits for. These are the worst kind of accidents because as we say, they happen quickly. They happen before the pilot really has time to react properly.

And more importantly, even if they could, there is no -- there is nothing to do at that point, because there is no place to go. Low, slow, lacking the power they need. Just completely boxed in. And that's what happens in these microburst situations.

That's why, you know, the technology is so important in these cases. But there still are judgment calls that are made. And while a controller may issue a warning for microbursts, I've heard them on the radio all the time, pilots all the time make real-time decisions about whether it is safe and appropriate to continue that landing.

It's not like the controller is reaching out and stopping a flight from landing. That's not how the system works. The system works with the pilot and flight crew making these decisions.

So all the technology in the world doesn't compensate for the fact that there are some times when, number one, fluke things happen -- microbursts that no one could have predicted, the technology didn't see. There were no warnings. Or there are crews that make decisions to press on, to try to land and don't come out on the winning end.

BLITZER: We're now told, Miles, that the news conference from the Greater Toronto Airports Authority has been moved down, not surprisingly, to 5:30 p.m. Eastern, a little bit more than 15 minutes or so from now. We'll bring that to our viewers live as soon as it happens.

And just to recap, this is -- was Air France Flight 35, an Airbus 340 that left Paris at 1:32 on the flight from Charles De Gaulle International Airport outside Paris. Scheduled to land in Toronto at Pearson International Airport at 3:35.

But as it was coming in, as it was coming in, and we're showing our viewers this animation of the Pearson International Airport in Toronto from satellite imagery, there's no doubt that the horrible weather, that there was horrible weather, thunderstorms, lightning as it came in.

And you said something to me as a passenger, as someone who flies a lot that's pretty ominous. This notion that even in bad weather, pilots and crews and air traffic controllers, they sort of say, let's just get this over with and make a run for it.

And I'm sort of paraphrasing what you're saying, Miles, but it's sort of ominous, because in my mind, if there's any, any doubt whatsoever about the safety and -- safety of a landing, you avoid the landing. You stay up in the sky until you know there's no doubt whatsoever.

O'BRIEN: Well, yes. And that would be if you had a doubt. And we're assuming for a moment that they had doubts before this occurred. We're also making a big assumption that the weather was a factor, although the weather was terrible, by all accounts, and there were warnings issued in that area, according to what we've been seeing.

I'm wondering if John Wiley is still with us.

BLITZER: Before we get to John Wiley, though, if he is still with us, we do have an eyewitness on the phone, Miles. Corey Marx is joining us. Corey, tell us what you saw.

COREY MARX, EYEWITNESS: Well, it was roughly around 4 p.m. in the afternoon, and I'll just give you a perspective of where the airport sits on the highway. A lot of us usually pull over to the side of the shoulder on the 401 and we watch the planes come in, especially this time of day. They come in and the land towards the west. So it's very easy to see big planes coming in, and some of us have our kids or whatever sitting there and taking pictures.

It was about 4. It was getting really dark and all of a sudden, lightning was happening, a lot of rain coming down. And this plane was -- I didn't see the size of the plane, but it was an Air France plane, came in on the runway. Everything looked good, sounded good. Hit the runway nice. And then all of a sudden, we heard his engines backing up.

The airport itself, the runway, I don't know if you got a picture of it or not. But you can see the concrete and then once the concrete ends, there's no barriers or anything there. And it just runs straight down onto grass and into a valley. But he went straight into the valley and cracked in half.

I mean, whatever you're seeing now, you're not seeing, probably, half the plane. You're probably seeing the back end of the plane, because it's way down in there.

Two of us that were standing here, we were about to run over and, you know, try to help sort of thing, but it went up in such flames. And I mean, there's still a couple of fireballs, probably about five minutes ago, still going up.

BLITZER: We showed our viewers that last fireball that just went up, as well. Corey, how much time elapsed between the time that you saw the plane sort of stop and break in half and the flames really erupting? Was it only a matter of seconds?

MARX: Seconds because we were about to make a move, thinking that, you know, years ago there was another crash almost in the same spot. It went off the runway and didn't do anything. I mean, it was in seconds that the flames came up, and we just decided to stay back.

And the weird part about it is, there's usually, from my understanding, if there is problems in the air, you know, the fire department -- we have a big fire department on site of all the three terminals. They're usually on the runway, waiting for it to come in. But there was nobody. So this was something that happened whenever he hit and landed and just skidded off the runway.

BLITZER: Corey, had there been planes landing before this Air France attempted the landing, or was this plane sort of just one of the few that actually decided to come in?

MARX: No, there was quite a few planes landing before him, big planes. They usually route the big planes coming -- flying from the east to the west and they land on this runway from heading toward the west.

But at the time that he came in was just before the storm started. And I don't know if something, wind or lightning. I mean, it was black, and it was lightning and raining and so forth.

I'm sitting right on the highway right now, still. We're pitched right in the middle lane there, right by the guardrail. And I still feel the heat from the thing.

BLITZER: So you are -- because we're showing our viewers this Highway 401. This is the busiest highway in Canada that encircles this airport. So you're still there. You're watching this unfold?

MARX: Yes, I'm still there. There's a whole bunch of cars here. The big white van and I'm a couple cars behind the van. We've been here since. And a couple people walking across the road now, coming towards us.

BLITZER: And we can see those people crossing the road to where you are. You say you can feel the smoke. You can feel the heat where you are?

MARX: Yes. You still can. Like I said, like, not too long ago there was another fireball that went up. And it's in the valley. Like, there's a big valley there. So when he goes off the cliff and went down, it probably took up half the -- there's a fire truck now just blowing off a lot of water on to it now.

BLITZER: Yes, we can see that.

MARX: You can see the flames. I mean, when he goes down into that valley, half the plane if not three-quarters, I don't know the actual size, if it was a 747 or an A320 or anything, but it was a fair sized plane.

BLITZER: We are told it was an Airbus 340, which is a wide-body. It's a big plane making this transatlantic flight from Paris to Toronto, scheduled to land at 4:12. It was coming in, you say, shortly after 4.

Did it actually touch the runway, Corey?

MARX: Yes, it touched the runway. It hit the runway and it sounded, seemed like everything was going good. They want us -- the police want us to leave now. Everything was -- I'm just driving away now. Everything was fine on the runway. He hit. Everything seemed nice and then all of a sudden, we heard his engines go back. And then he just sailed on through and just kept on going.

BLITZER: Miles O'Brien -- Corey, Corey...

MARX: No spinning, no tipping or anything.

BLITZER: Corey Marx, hold on a second. Miles, if you're there, maybe you want to ask Corey, an eyewitness to what has happened, some questions that go through your mind. O'BRIEN: Corey, first of all, you shed an awful lot of light on this for us, because this changes our notion of how this occurred, whether he was in flight or not. And you don't happen to remember which way the wind was blowing at the time, do you?

MARX: No, sir.

O'BRIEN: You didn't notice a gust in any direction.

MARX: It was raining really, really bad and it was lightning. I don't even remember which way he was going. I mean, the plane is still on fire. I don't understand why. I mean, they've been dousing it for awhile.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Do you have any sense -- did you see any indication of survivors of any kind?

MARX: No, no.

O'BRIEN: OK. And -- and as far...

MARX: I didn't see anybody get out. Again, then again, there's a deep -- like I say, there's a deep valley there. And if it went down and cracked in a certain spot. If they tailed off towards the north, I would have never seen them because the smoke was immediate with the flames. So if anybody got out, God bless them if they went that way.

BLITZER: I'm told that one of the runways there, which heads to the west, Runway 24, which would be 240 degrees on a magnetic compass...

MARX: Right.

BLITZER: ... actually goes kind of downward 15 feet down from top to bottom.

Let me ask you this. Just tell me a little bit about what the weather you saw, was it one of those storms where the sky becomes kind of almost greenish?

MARX: No, it was dark. It was really dark. It was -- you knew there was a thunderstorm coming. You smelled it. And then all of a sudden, it just hit. It didn't last too long.

O'BRIEN: Now, did you have the sense that the plane touched down at the right place on the runway? Could you see that much? Do you know how much time it spent on the runway, in other words?

MARX: Oh, yes. We were sitting there because we just got off of work at 4. We just work around the area. And we usually do this, a bunch of us. And I mean, it hit at the normal spot where we usually see them land.

I mean, for that size of a plane, I didn't catch him coming exactly in, but when we turned over, we saw where he landed and then from there, it was just watching him go straight across, I mean full speed. But we heard him back up the engines, and then he just kept going.

O'BRIEN: And did you -- could you tell anything about -- could you tell if he was braking? Was he skidding? Was there anything about it that you saw along the runway that would indicate that he was braking?

MARX: It was tough to -- you know, you can hear the motors because they're so loud. We're on a highway. So the traffic, it's 4 p.m. It's rush hour. There was a lot of noise going back and forth. I didn't -- I can't say that I hear him skid or anything like that or any rubber being put down.

But we did hear the motors kick back in reverse motion, which you know, is normal. We didn't think anything was wrong until the guy that I was with piped up and said, you know, he was getting pretty close to the end. And the next thing we know, down into the valley he went.

O'BRIEN: And I think one of the things that investigators will look at here now, Wolf -- this just changed things a little bit. For one thing, going back to that microburst scenario, possibility of a strong tail wind there, the possibility the brakes may not have served the pilot well for some reason, maybe a mechanical problem, or maybe a slick runway.

Let me ask you this. Could you tell, was the runway slick, were there puddles, anything like that? Was there driving rain at the time?

MARX: Like I said, it just started raining as he was -- as he was coming down. So the runway probably was slick. And then there was the lightning. And then it was like -- it was really weird because once he went into the gully, the rain was finished. It was done. I don't know if you can see on the -- on the TV or not, the roads are still a little slick because it hit, as you say, like a burst and then it was finished.

BLITZER: Corey, this is Wolf Blitzer in Washington. I'm going to have you stand by, if you don't mind. Stay with us. I want to you listen to this next interview.

Joining us on the phone from Toronto, Captain David Sheen of the Toronto fire services, who's joining us.

Captain, what can you tell us about what has happened?

CAPT. DAVID SHEEN, TORONTO FIRE SERVICES: Well, we're very limited in our knowledge. What we can tell you is Toronto Fire has been asked to provide support and cover for Mississauga Fire and Brampton Fire, who would support the Greater Toronto Airports Authority Fire Department.

We're currently setting up command operations and logistical operations closer to the airport, as well as ensuring a ready foam supply if they need to call on us for firefighting and moving some of our trucks and manpower so that we can be of assistance in the area.

BLITZER: We're seeing -- I assume it's water. But maybe it's something else being sprayed aboard -- on the aircraft, the debris or what's left of this Air France Airbus 340. If you're looking at these pictures on CTV, what is being sprayed on this wreckage?

SHEEN: It's more than likely some form of firefighting foam.

BLITZER: And the purpose would just be to put the fire out. Is that what you're saying?

SHEEN: Yes, absolutely. It's to provide a blanket and smother the fire.

BLITZER: How long did it take, do you know, to get some of these fire firefighters and equipment to the scene after this crash?

SHEEN: Well, as I mentioned earlier, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority has their own fire department, and they could best -- they could best respond with regards to what their response times were. But they're right on scene at the airport.

My understanding is, a condition code red was caused at the airport, which put everybody on standby. So they would have been on the scene within seconds.

BLITZER: Do you know anything, Captain Sheen, about casualties?

SHEEN: Nothing whatsoever. We heard that a few casualties (AUDIO GAP) had been taken to some of the local hospitals, but we don't know which hospitals and we don't know how many.

BLITZER: Well, that's important information you're providing us, that there were survivors, as far as you know, at least some survivors who have been taken to local hospitals?

SHEEN: As far as I know, yes.

BLITZER: Do you ever any idea how many?

SHEEN: No, none whatsoever.

BLITZER: And these were people aboard the aircraft, based on what you know, or people who happened to have perhaps been in the vicinity who may have gotten caught up in it?

SHEEN: As far as I know, I don't know whether they were from the plane or who they were. We just heard that a few casualties were taken to local hospitals.

BLITZER: Well, that's encouraging. Miles, why don't you weigh in with Captain Sheen and ask him some questions on your mind?

O'BRIEN: Well, Captain, first of all, were you in a position to know the weather at the time of this accident? Were you close to the airport?

SHEEN: Well, we were -- we're actually at Toronto fire headquarters, which is probably about six or seven miles from the airport. But the weather, there was severe weather in the area at the time.

O'BRIEN: OK. And as far as you know, at any point, did the airport close down, suspend flights? Was there any sort of notification along that level?

SHEEN: I don't know, so I could not comment on that.


BLITZER: All right, Miles, Captain David Sheen of the Toronto Fire Services. We'll get back to you. Thank you very much.

Let's bring in -- let's bring back Corey Marx on the phone. He's -- I'm assuming you're a Torontonian, Corey. You just happened to have parked your car along this highway 401, outside Pearson International Airport. Just before 4 p.m. or slightly after 4 p.m. Eastern time, almost an hour and a half or so ago, from now -- an hour and a half ago.

And you watched this plane coming in and pick up the story. And pick up the story. Tell our viewers once again who may just be tuning in, Corey, what happened.

MARX: Well, as you were saying, we were just on the side of the road, a couple of guys. We get off of work. It was just after 4 and when the weather comes in. But when the plane touched down, hits the runway. Then we hear this engines go backwards sort of thing.

And then at the end of the runway, there's not really a barrier or anything there. And that just goes for about, maybe, 100 yards and then dumps into a creek, which is a pretty big creek, and the plane went straight in.

And just to back up to verify what the police -- the fireman said, they were there within seconds. I mean, once they did get into the creek and went on fire, I mean, those guys were there within a couple of, I'd say about 40, 50 seconds. Had to be about 15 trucks there.

BLITZER: It didn't take long for them to get there?

MARX: No, that's what I'm saying. I'm hopeful that what he's saying, that there is some survivors, that they did go out the way -- they didn't come out -- there was only two ways to go out, one to the north and one to the south. And they didn't come south, because that's where I was. So they must have headed north through the creek if they did get out.

BLITZER: If there were survivors, Miles, clearly that would be not only extremely encouraging but somewhat of a surprise, given what we've seen.

O'BRIEN: Well, yes, but when I was talking to you before, Wolf, we were under the assumption this was -- occurred before they touched down on the ground. This raises a whole different set of scenarios for the crash investigators to look at. And one of the key things will be how well that plane was able to brake as it went down that runway. We believe in the direction they were going, first of all, it was a slightly down sloping runway. You've got a situation where you've got a driving rainstorm, possibly puddling on the runway, although runways are constructed with all that in mind, to sort of shed water, but nonetheless, standing water can occur.

There have been cases, as a matter of fact, in an Airbus A320, I'm told by one of my pilot friends who I correspond with, that in 1993, an Airbus A320 trying to land in Warsaw. As it -- as it landed, because of the water on the runway, the wheels hydroplaned. In other words, they didn't spin as they would normally.

And the computers are set on the Airbus to defeat some of the braking capability, the spoilers and so forth, unless it detects the wheels spinning and being on the ground. And so in other words, the computer said, "Wait a minute, you're not on the ground yet. You're not going to start braking yet," and the pilot was helpless in that kiss.

Now I don't know if that scenario has been addressed. That happened in 1993. But the point is, there is still a scenario here where braking and the ability of the pilot to brake and whether systems worked like the brake system and the spoilers and the reverse thrusters, all the things that slow down an airplane in these situations, whether all those things were working properly.

And perhaps in this case, the pilot didn't have the ability to slow down in time.

MARX: I don't know which feed you're getting, because I haven't seen a TV, but if you can see the site now, do you see all the traffic that's like really slow?

BLITZER: Yes, we see that traffic.

MARX: That is heading eastbound. And the couple of cars that are straggling through is heading westbound, which is the way the plane come in. so if you look up far away from where the cars are slowly going -- fastly going, you'll see the runway there.


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