MIGHTY HISTORY

How a civilian aircraft in distress set a world glider record

Air Transat Flight 236 was on its routine route from Toronto, bound for Lisbon, Portugal. It was a day like any other for the experienced crew – at least it started off like a normal day. By the end of it, 306 people would be saved from extreme danger, and two pilots would set a world record, all while pretty much arriving at their destination.


Flight TS236 was a late-night flight from Toronto to Lisbon, taking off just before 9 p.m. Eastern Time on Aug. 4, 2001. It took off without incident, fully fueled and flew pretty much normally for the first four hours of its flight. But what the pilots didn't know was the fuel line to their number two engine had ruptured and was leaking fuel the entire time. Still, everything on the instruments read normal – until they didn't.

The first sign of trouble came with a high oil pressure warning and a low oil temperature warning. With there being no obvious cause of the oil warnings, the seasoned pilots determined it must be a false warning. They reported the situation but continued with the flight. An hour later, they got another warning. This time, the plane was warning them of a fuel imbalance. Easily remedied, the pilots began to transfer fuel from the left wing to the right, pouring the fuel right out through the leak.

Ten minutes later, they radioed a fuel emergency.

At the controls of TS236 were probably the best pilots to be in this situation. First Officer Dirk de Jager was just 28 years old had nearly 5,000 hours at the stick of an airplane, and hundreds of those were with the Airbus 330 he was copiloting. Captain Robert Piché was 48 and had more than 16,000 hours in an aircraft. Luckily for everyone aboard, Capt. Piché was also an experienced glider pilot. He would need those skills in the coming hours.

Five hours after taking off from Toronto, engine #2 on Air Transat Flight 236 flamed out due to lack of fuel. Three minutes later, its other engine flamed out. To make matters worse, without their main power source, the plane's flaps, brakes, and spoilers were without power. Falling at a rate of 2,000 feet every second, the pilots reasoned they had a good 15 minutes or so before they would have to ditch in the ocean. But luck was on their side, they were coming up on Lajes Field Air Base in Portugal.

Capt. Piché actually had to do a number of turns to lower his altitude before coming into Lajes Field. Almost seven hours after taking off, the plane touched down, and it touched down in a rough way. With no brakes, the landing gear locked up, the tired deflated and the landing gear took massive damage from the impact. A number of the passengers and crew sustained some injuries, but everyone was alive – and in Portugal.

TS236 glided powerlessly and with no fuel for almost 20 minutes, flying some 75 miles, setting the world record for the longest glider flight. The Airbus 330 Piché landed that day is still in service and is now known as the "Azores Glider."