Matthew McKinnon
Feb 16, 2015 · 26 min read

by Matthew McKinnon

Originally published in the April 2003 issue of Toronto Life

FRIDAY, AUGUST 24, 2001. A twin-engined Airbus 330, outbound from Toronto to Lisbon, cuts across the empty mid-Atlantic sky. Flight 236 had left Pearson almost five hours earlier, lifting 291 passengers and thirteen crew high into the night. Crossing over Gander, it had diverted south at the request of air traffic control, to avoid heavy activity along its original path.

Up here, 39,000 feet above the waves, the time is 5:36 a.m. My sister, Margaret McKinnon, sits near the front of coach, sharing three seats in a centre-aisle row with her husband, John Baljkas. Margaret met John four years earlier, when she was taking a master’s in psychology at the University of Toronto and he was doing a master’s in fine arts at York. They were friends for a long time, then lovers, now partners: Margaret married John six days ago, in a Catholic church on a hill north of Barrie. Our parents live halfway up the slope, and after the ceremony everyone followed a bagpiper down the gravel road to the white tent set between their house and a horse pasture. It was the rare wedding where everything worked; I remember looking up from dinner and thinking I had never seen Margaret so happy.

Margaret and John were too busy with wedding plans to give their honeymoon much thought, although both knew they wanted to see Portugal and Morocco. They booked their tickets at the next-to-last minute and wound up on this flight because it was the only option left. Flight 236 belongs to Air Transat, Canada’s largest charter carrier. The airline began operations in 1987, offering cheap fares to European and southern destinations in exchange for tight seating and no-perks service.

Margaret and I rarely flew as kids — she’s twenty-six now, “one year, nine months, five days, six hours and twenty-two minutes” older than me, her mantra from our early years — and she hasn’t warmed to flying as an adult. John, who is twenty-nine, acts the same on land or at sea or in the air: calm, rational. He has just eaten and shuts his eyes to sleep away the rest of the flight. Margaret wants to do the same but first rises to use the washroom.

Forward in the cockpit, Captain Robert Piché is on the radio, talking to Air Transat maintenance about problems with the plane’s oil. Usually, driving a bird this advanced is more like babysitting: get the plane in the air, put the autopilot in gear, then run routine systems checks, stare out the window, talk to your co-pilot. But tonight is different. The oil in the right engine has been running cold since takeoff and reads low on the cockpit computer. An oil drain is not a serious problem. Modern airliners are built around the concept of redundancy: when one part of the plane fails, another should be available to compensate for its loss. At worst, Piché and co-pilot Dirk De Jager can shut off the right engine, and Flight 236 will make Lisbon on the strength of the left.

The forty-eight-year-old Piché has been flying for most of his life. He began as an air cadet in Quebec’s Gaspé region when he was seventeen. He spent the late 1970s at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, skipping around Anticosti Island in bush planes. He made a career change in the early ‘80s: one summer night, on a run from Jamaica to a remote runway in rural Georgia, he got caught with a cargo hold stuffed with marijuana. He spent eighteen months in jail, only returning to Canada (by way of Europe) in 1996, and has been crossing oceans for Air Transat ever since.

When the computer flashes a second warning, oil becomes the least of Piché’s worries. The right-wing fuel tank reads lighter than the left. That means the right engine is either burning fuel faster than it’s supposed to or leaking fuel, neither of which is good news when you’re eleven kilometres up with nothing but water below. What the computer doesn’t register, and therefore can’t tell Piché, is that a low-pressure fuel line leading to the right engine cracked and split sometime after takeoff. As Flight 236 pushes east, a ribbon of fuel hundreds of kilometres long trails behind into the darkness. It is out there, underneath the wing where no one can see, that the nightmares begin.

OR IS IT HERE? Five days earlier, on Sunday, August 19, Air Transat mechanics at Mirabel Airport uncrate a Rolls-Royce Trent 700 Series engine and prepare it for installation on an Airbus A330. Margaret’s A330. The plane is only two years old, with 10,000 flight hours and an unblemished operating record, but tiny metal filings turned up in the engine oil during its last inspection. The right engine needs to be repaired. Rather than keep the whole plane grounded, a replacement will be swapped in. Leased from Rolls-Royce, from a pool of spares available to airlines flying out of Mirabel, it is relatively new, having flown only a few thousand hours. Once the mechanics unpack it, however, they find two problems: first, the fuel pump is missing; second, it’s a different type of engine.

Air Transat’s existing stock of Trent 700s is composed of newer models. The mechanics are unfamiliar with installing this older model, but they have a Rolls-Royce special service bulletin describing the procedure. The lead mechanic phones his supervisor to request instructions. He is told to proceed with the installation. For this, his team follows the special service bulletin, which shows how to maintain the required clearances between hydraulic and fuel lines. If the lines touch, they chafe. Chafing means cracks, and cracks mean leaks. A maintenance controller signs off on the new engine, clearing the plane to return to active service.

Margaret’s Airbus will cross the Atlantic thirteen times in the next four days, totalling sixty-seven hours of flight time. The fourteenth trip, Toronto to Lisbon, is hers.

AT 5:41 A.M., Piché and De Jager decide they no longer have enough fuel to reach Lisbon. De Jager, following procedure, spends the next moments executing a complicated series of system checks in hope of finding the leak, to no avail. What happens next is still disputed: either Piché or the cockpit computer opens the cross-feed valve between the wing tanks. Fuel from the heavier left wing flood into the rapidly emptying right. Piché alters course, pointing Flight 236 toward the Azores.

A loosely grouped chain of volcanic islands 1,200 kilometres west of the Portuguese mainland, the Azores are mountainous and verdant, the only solid ground in the entire mid-Atlantic. The islands belong to Portugal, although Terceira, at the archipelago’s centre, is home to a U.S. military air base, Lajes Field. The Portuguese army built Lajes in the 1930s, beginning with a few stray buildings and a packed-dirt runway. They signed an agreement in early 1941 permitting British planes to use it as a base for hunting German U-boats during World War II. The Americans arrived in late 1943 and began construction of new, longer runways. Lajes became a critical link in the U.S. war supply chain, once landing 600 planes in a month. The Americans stayed on after the war as Portugal’s tenants and now maintain Lajes and its overlong runways as, among other things, an emergency landing strip for space shuttles.

At 5:48, Margaret is back in her seat. The cabin lights are low. Many of the passengers sleep, although Seinfeld is showing on the retractable TV monitors. Flight attendants move through the aisles, offering coffee, orange juice and muffins in cardboard boxes. In the cockpit, Piché is holding at 39,000 feet. He radios Azores control and declares an emergency.

The right engine flames out at 6:13, 217 kilometres shy of Lajes. Although the A330 can fly on one engine, it performs better at lower altitudes (the Airbus operating handbook recommends 16,000 feet), where the air is thicker. Piché begins dropping altitude to reduce the strain on the left engine.

At 6:26, about thirteen minutes after the first engine cut out, Piché loses the second. With it goes the primary power, knocking out many of the plane’s controls. Piché radioes Lajes again, alerting the tower that he might have to ditch at sea. His plane is dead in the air at 34,500 feet, the first airliner to run out of fuel over the Atlantic Ocean since jets replaced prop planes on long-haul routes. Lajes, the only safe landing available, lies 150 kilometres beyond the cockpit window.

JANUARY 2003, MISSISSAUGA. Marco Scocco dreams about plane crashes. “They’re never about crashes that I’m in,” he says. “I’m always a witness. There was one just recently, maybe a month ago. I kept saying 236, 236. I was telling everyone that 236 people are going to die in an airplane. Then I saw an Alitalia plane” — Scocco is Italian — “crash into a hotel in Las Vegas. I was screaming, ‘Oh, my God! How many people died?’ Someone said 236. Then I freaked out and woke up.”

I am sitting in Scocco’s kitchen. His roommate, whom I know only as Mike, had met me at the door fifteen minutes earlier. Most of the lights were out, and the living room was empty save for a swivelling office chair. Mike was on Flight 236 as well, headed to Portugal with Scocco to meet a friend and do two weeks of nothing on the Algarve Coast. Scocco has already warned me that Mike doesn’t want talk to me; sure enough, as soon as Scocco padded downstairs in track pants and a T-shirt, Mike disappeared into the den without a word.

At the kitchen table, I arrange a notepad and recorder on the table while Scocco, a thirty-one-year-old computer salesman, heats espresso on the stove. He has small, bright eyes, frosted blond hair. We talk about television. A producer from The Nature of Things called one of his lawyers today; the show wants to interview him for an episode about fear. He has already been on Dateline NBC, for a story about Flight 236 that aired last April. (So was Margaret. I didn’t see it, and won’t watch the tape she lent me more than a month ago.)

Scocco had worked almost a full day before going to the airport, turning down his boss’s playful offer of $1,000 to cancel the trip — “Whatever, boss,” he says now, smiling at the memory. At the check-in counter, Mike asked to be seated in the safest part of the plane, as if there were such a thing. The two friends wound up in the centre aisle, three rows behind an emergency exit. Mike fell asleep shortly after takeoff. Scocco watched the movie (Chocolat), then Seinfeld. He guessed something was wrong the instant his screen flickered off.

“We still had over an hour left in the flight,” he says, stirring sugar into a demitasse. “The lights dimmed in and out, and the TVs went up. Maybe a minute later, the flight attendants came running down the aisle. They had life jackets in their hands and told us to put them on. They sounded frantic.”

The flight attendants hurriedly cleared the passengers’ drinks and snacks as the plane’s public address system came alive. De Jager made the initial announcement in English, warning everyone to prepare for an ocean landing. He told the passengers to put on their life jackets and remove their shoes.

John and Margaret were several rows ahead of Scocco.

John had only just managed to fall asleep when the PA announcement woke him. “The flight attendant for our section was standing in front of us yawning,” he recalled. “She seemed so casual. Another flight attendant” — Scocco’s — “seemed very panicked. He had a totally different reaction.” De Jager repeated the message in French, then passed the microphone to a Portuguese-speaking flight attendant. Margaret and John both heard dread in the woman’s voice. They remember gasps and screams from the plane’s Portuguese passengers, followed by tears and prayers.

Up the aisle, Daniel Rodrigues sat surrounded by his extended family. The twenty-four-year-old student helicopter pilot from Vaughan was travelling to a family wedding in Lisbon with his wife, best friend, brother-in-law and grandfather-in-law. “She was sobbing into the microphone,” he says, recalling the flight attendant doing the translation. “Every time she spoke, every time she even emitted a breath, the little old ladies yelled for saints I’ve never even heard of.”

THERE HAVE BEEN three known ditchings of large passenger planes into water. The most recent was an Ethiopian Boeing 767 that ran out of fuel during a 1996 hijacking. The crash occurred in warm, shallow waters of the Indian Ocean, less than a kilometre from shore. The plane hit on an angle, skimming along the surface like a hydrofoil before cartwheeling and disintegrating in an explosion of spray. Boats from a nearby resort lent assistance. Even so, only fifty of the 175 on board survived. Flight 236 was in worse straits: if it was going down, it was going down alone, in cold, deep water, with no help on the horizon.

The cabin was in chaos. Children were crying; old hands clutched at rosaries; a woman screamed, “Save us, Jesus!” Rodrigues tried to keep cool, telling himself it was all a drill, that the crew was testing itself to see how it would fare in a real emergency. When that didn’t work, he started laughing. “My best friend was freaking out, talking to his dead father,” he remembers. “My wife was freaking out, crying. My in-laws didn’t even move: my father-in-law hates flying, so he was stone-cold white-faced. Grandpa had no idea what was going on. I yelled at the other passengers to shut up. I couldn’t take the praying; when they started calling out all those saints, I lost it.”

So did Scocco. He had woken Mike at the first sign of trouble, but Mike was saying little, just staring at the seat in front of him as if meditating. “I have never been so scared in my life,” Scocco tells me, stubbing out one cigarette while reaching for another. “My whole body was full of tremors. My knees, my head, shoulders, legs, everything. Mike would say, ‘Stop it, please,’ but I couldn’t. I tried to hold my knees together, but the shakes overpowered my arms.

“The basic things come to your mind: your family, your friends. You wish that you had a better relationship with your mother, your father, your sisters and brothers. You don’t want to die like this. To die in an airplane is sick. It’s a sick feeling.”

Margaret thinks she heard the left engine cut out — “You could hear a click, and then there was no sound; it got so still” — but most details are murky for her, a loose tangle of fear and anxiety.

Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling, triggering another round of panic. “People didn’t know how to put the masks on,” Rodrigues says. “One guy was wearing his like a hat. I refused to wear mine; nothing was coming out of it. I pulled it out and threw it on the floor.” Scocco remembers the masks falling like dominoes, one row of seats at a time. “My flight attendant was sitting right where you are,” he says, pointing to me across his kitchen table, “facing me in one of those fold-down seats. He had tears rolling down his cheeks, and he was clenching his jaw so hard it looked like it was going to come out the sides of his face.”

Piché knew that a jetliner like the 330 could expect to glide some sixteen metres forward for every metre down, although that estimate is based on an airspeed of 370 kilometers per hour. If he went any faster, he would be unable to lower his landing gear; anything slower than 290, and the plane would lose its aerodynamic properties and plunge to the water like a stone. At 33,000 feet, a small propeller automatically deployed beneath the right wing. Called a ram air turbine, it provides hydraulics for basic flight controls and instruments in an emergency.

Every passenger I talked to described the glide as a gentle roller-coaster ride. “The plane wasn’t doing anything crazy,” Scocco says, “a lot of side-to-side movement, a lot of ups and downs. It was almost like being on a cloud.” That was Piché, summoning whatever lessons he had learned as a bush pilot and drug runner to turn his whale of a passenger plane into a lithe glider, pitching and rolling toward Lajes every which way he could.

By 6:34, Flight 236 was within thirteen kilometres of the runway — and still 15,000 feet high. De Jager wanted Piché to lose altitude by circling the landing strip, and the pilot obliged by pushing the plane into a hard left turn. Back in the cabin, the ride switched from roller coaster to free fall. Scocco looked across three seats to see sunlit waves beyond the window.

Piché lost some 5,000 feet on the first circuit, but he didn’t want to risk a second. Landing gear extended, he pulled out of the turn, lined up the runway and dove for earth. The normal approach speed for a twin-engined jet is 225 kilometres per hour; Flight 236, powered by gravity, came in at nearly 400. Piché couldn’t lift the plane’s flaps to create drag to slow the plane, and there was no power for the anti-lock brakes. “It felt like slides going ticka-ticka-tick through your head,” Rodrigues remembers. “[De Jager] comes on [the PA] and says, ‘Brace, brace, brace — grab onto your seat.’ You could feel the aircraft swaying left to right to accommodate for distance; then it was nose up, and — bang! — then a bounce, and then it was like riding on gravel.”

The struts and axles held when the plane hit, but all ten tires locked the instant Piché tried to stop; eight of them exploded, loudly enough to be heard in the cockpit. Flight 236 skidded more than half the length of the 3.2-kilometre runway, trailing sparks and a long stain of rubber.

After the plane scraped to a halt, Piché and De Jager high-fived in the cockpit. The flight attendants leaped from their seats and ordered the passengers to the emergency exits. “People started clapping and yelling with joy,” Scocco says. “I took one jump to the door and actually saw the chutes deploy. I was the first guy out of the plane. It was like Chariots of Fire: 300 people behind me, and I just ran and ran and ran. Then I fell to my knees and bawled my eyes out.” He injured his arm during the evacuation, although he doesn’t remember how. (It ached throughout the Algarve, and x-rays in Toronto revealed a fractured scaphoid, a comma-shaped bone in the wrist.) Mike followed Scocco down the chute but stayed behind to help catch passengers as they descended. “I would have thought that I would want to stay and help, too,” Scocco says. “But you’re not thinking properly.”

John recalls standing at the top of the chute. “You’re shocked by how high off the ground the plane is,” he says. “The chute is steeper, longer and faster than you might think.” Margaret remembers her dress flying up on the way down. John smelled jet fuel coming out the plane, and he and Margaret chased into the field after Scocco.

“It was straw, I think,” Margaret says. “I was puffing on my asthma inhaler, running toward another runway. The U.S. military was lined up, waiting for us. We still had no idea what had happened.”

Rodrigues was already mad when the plane landed, and became even more so during the evacuation. “My grandfather-in-law has had two hip replacement surgeries,” he says. “If you take away his cane, he can’t walk. So don’t they take it away and throw him out the fucking chute? Literally, they pushed him right out the door.” On the ground, Rodrigues remembers watching a Portuguese woman — “old, dressed entirely in black” — slide down the chute, legs high in the air, then hearing her head smack on the cement.

LAJES HAD BEEN expecting Flight 236 for almost an hour, but they were still unprepared for the sudden influx of 300 scared, manic people. The local Portuguese authorities, operating on orders from Air Transat headquarters in Montreal, led the passengers to the terminal. “It’s just a big white room with some benches,” Scocco says. “There was a snack bar in the corner with a bunch of bottles of alcohol covered in dust. I don’t think the girl behind the counter spoke any English, but I said, ‘Just give me a bottle. Any bottle.’ We polished it off in a few minutes, whatever it was.” Piché and the crew had stayed behind to secure the plane, empty the cargo hold and spread the passengers’ luggage in neat rows along the tarmac (some passengers would later complain that they couldn’t find Piché, De Jager or any other crew members to explain what had happened).

Margaret and John wandered the terminal like zombies, then joined a long queue for the only phones in sight. “People were lying on the cement in their life jackets, puking,” Margaret says. “You don’t want to know what the washroom smelled like.” She reached the phone after a two-hour wait. It was early morning in Barrie, and she counted several rings before our mother picked up on the other end. “Mom was screaming. Crying, hysterical. She said angels were with us, that God saved us.” Dad was in New Orleans on business, but he had left instructions with Mom to page him twice in case of emergency. She did. A neighbour had already heard the first news reports and came over to talk about fate and God’s greater plan for Margaret and John’s lives. Mom called her brother, then she called me in my apartment in Toronto. My girlfriend answered the phone and shook me awake to hear the news.

After six hours in the terminal, the passengers were given rooms in the U.S. barracks. Scocco barely had time to shower before they were on the move again, hustled onto buses and taken to a ferry headed for another airport on another island. The boat ride lasted five hours. Somewhere in the shuffle, Rodrigues happened across two girls, aged nine and twelve, with unaccompanied-minor tags hanging from their necks. They were on their way home to Lisbon after holidays in Toronto. Rodrigues told them to stick close. Later, on the flight to Lisbon, an Air Transat exec noticed the girls and moved to claim them. It was thirteen hours after touchdown in Lajes.

MARGARET AND JOHN say word of the fuel leak began circulating among passengers within hours of their arrival in Lisbon. And the more they heard, the angrier they became. Newspapers and television in Canada and Portugal made Flight 236 their top story, first reporting the heroism of Piché’s dead-stick landing, later churning out reports of negligent maintenance,the pilot’s opening of the cross-feed valve and past life as a drug runner. Canada slapped Air Transat with the largest fine in Canadian aviation history, $250,000, for maintenance infractions and ordered a special audit of the carrier’s maintenance and operations. Airbus ordered worldwide inspection of clearances between fuel and hydraulic lines on every A330 flying a Rolls-Royce Trent 700 Series engine, to be completed within seventy-two hours.

With that much dirt in the fan, it didn’t take long for the lawyers to come calling. A Toronto personal injury lawyer named Antonio Azevedo was first in line. He struck a quick deal with Air Transat, arranging individual one-time payouts of an undisclosed amount — rumoured to be around $10,000 — to any passenger willing to take them. About a hundred did (including Scocco’s roommate, Mike). The remaining passengers were automatically added to a $70-million class action suit brought by Goodman and Carr LLP, a King Street West firm with a background in aviation litigation, and Camp Fiorante Matthews, a Vancouver firm with similar expertise. Margaret, John, Rodrigues and Scocco are attached to the suit, which seeks $30 million in general damages (a.k.a. pain and suffering), $30 million in special damages (out-of-pocket expenses and treatment costs) and $10 million in exemplary and punitive damages (you screwed up) from Air Transat, Airbus and Rolls-Royce. The case went before the Ontario Superior Court for certification on February 18. (As of press date, the judge had not decided whether the class action had grounds to proceed.)

Goodman and Carr’s statement of claim is a compelling read: Rolls-Royce leased an incomplete engine; Air Transat let the plane fly with a mismatched fuel pump. Airbus is involved because of alleged deficiencies in the A330's cockpit design. There are two major players in large-aircraft design: Airbus and Boeing. Each had a different philosophy on cockpit design. “Boeing is more traditional,” says David Harvey, the lead counsel, “with all sorts of gauges and dials feeding all sorts of information to the pilot. Airbus takes a different approach, in that it has automated and computerized most functions on the plane. The general idea is that you only tell pilots what they need to know.”

An official investigation began in the hours after Flight 236 skidded to a halt in Lajes. The Portuguese were in charge because the plane was headed their way. Transport Canada rode shotgun because Air Transat is headquartered in Montreal and Canada is the country of origin. There is no timetable for the investigation’s final report, but a preliminary version was released last June. Portuguese officials said they were focusing on Airbus’s computer software, concerned that it might have failed to provide Piché and DeJager with enough information to diagnose the fuel leak. They further suggested that the computer may have automatically opened the cross-feed valve, as early as the imbalance fuel warning at 5:36. The report indicated no plans to add safety recommendations beyond the various reprimands and service bulletins issued in the incident’s immediate wake.

David Harvey expects Air Transat’s safety record to play a starring role in his case. Though the airline has never had a fatal accident in its sixteen-year history, there have been plenty of mishaps. For me, the most significant was the one that occurred in June 2001, two months before Flight 236. During a flight from Toronto to Berlin, an Air Transat Boeing 757 was cruising over eastern Canada at 36,000 feet when the pilots noticed an odd vibration and problems with the engine oil. They immediately shut the affected engine down and radioed Gander for clearance to land. Panic roiled through the cabin. “The flight attendants . . . just started having tears in their eyes, you know, and running around with gas masks,” one of the passengers told the National Post. “So I thought that was it. Right then. We die.” The plane landed without incident at Gander 168 minutes after the shutdown. When the passengers eventually arrived in Germany, Air Transat representatives offered them $100 flight vouchers as compensation.

The June flight is important to understanding what might have happened on Flight 236. Under Transport Canada rules, a shutdown is a reportable offence. Collect enough of them on your record (and any other black mark, for that matter), and your ETOPS ratings could start coming down (ETOPS stands for extended range twin-engine operations — or how far away planes can stray from the closest airport during over-water routes — sometimes mockingly referred to by pilots as Engines Turning or Passengers Swim). The rating reduction would mean transatlantic flights would have to take longer routes, diverting north to the skies above Greenland and Iceland. Longer flight times equal increased fuel costs. It’s a safer way to fly but a body blow to the bottom line.

During Flight 236, Piché and De Jager noticed problems with their engine oil and fuel and radioed Montreal to request instructions. No one is allowed to talk about this conversation, pending delivery of the official investigation’s final report. Both problems originated on the right side of the plane, and both could presumably have been solved by shutting down the right engine. Piché didn’t do that, though, and fuel kept hurtling out into the night.

THE PILOT and his crew stayed at Lajes for two nights, replaying the flight for the horde of investigators that had swooped down on Terceira. Air Transat moved the crew out on Monday, August 27, hoping to stash them in a hotel in Lisbon. Portuguese reporters came calling the next morning, however, so they boarded a private jet and flew on to France, returning to Montreal on the 29th after a night in Paris.

Piché was a media sensation, the man who had met death and ignored it. Reporters couldn’t build his legend fast enough: the ace with the iron will, the adventurer bush pilot who had been flying forever. De Jager shared the praise, but the cameras always came back to Piché, handsome and witty, too much the gentleman to claim credit for what he had done. “Even though you’re trained, ready, you’re always surprised,” he said at the crew’s welcome-home press conference. “It makes no sense that a big jet with two engines has no power with 300 people on board. I guess at that time my experience came in. . . . That’s what we are trained for, that’s what we are paid for, to be successful in a situation like that. I’m not a hero.”

The Quebec press broke the story of Piché’s smuggling conviction by the end of the week, to little effect. His halo held until reports about the cross-feed valve began leaking out, but even then it was hard to give up the thought of the glide: Piché bearing down on Lajes with 300 lives in his hands, determined to bring a dead bird to roost. Quebec’s national assembly presented him with a medal of honour in November 2001. This past August, 363 days after Flight 236, the union representing most of North America’s commercial pilots gave Piché and De Jager an award for superior airmanship.

It wasn’t all glory. Air Transat announced last March that Piché was on sick leave for an undisclosed ailment. The truth is he had checked into an alcohol treatment centre. He spent seven weeks in full-time recovery, then another four months in extended therapy, and he hasn’t had a drink since. I heard the news and guessed that, like Margaret, he had nightmares, dark dreams about falling.

Robert Piché aux commandes du destin (Robert Piché at the Controls of Destiny), a biography penned by a Quebec journalist, is a French-language bestseller, and the CBC has optioned the rights to Piché’s story for a television movie. He had 300 interview requests waiting when he returned to Canada from Paris and hired a niece to manage his schedule. I found him through her and arranged a meeting in Montreal. Margaret was excited when I told her I was going, but shrugged when I asked what I should say to him. She seethes at the mention of Air Transat but after all this time still doesn’t know how to feel about Piché.

I didn’t know what to think, either. Sitting alone in a café on St. Laurent on a cold Sunday morning, waiting for Piché to arrive, I was still unsure. Then I looked up, and there he was, tanned and smiling, eyeglasses dangling around his neck on a string. I rose and shook his hand, pausing for a few seconds before thanking him for saving Margaret and John’s lives.

We talked about his youth, the college where he trained to become a pilot, the three years he spent flying in France, the two months he drove a taxi in Iqaluit. He told me two out of three Air Transat passengers ask if he’s flying their plane when they check in at Mirabel. I was anxious to know about the cross-feed valve, but I knew he was unable to tell me anything. He did, however, talk about the thin margin between landing safely and crashing: “What you have to do in that moment when the second engine quits is not let yourself go. In most crashes, that’s what happens; the guys up front let themselves go. They face death, and they can’t bear to look at it.”

I asked if he felt like a hero, and he talked about luck instead. Lajes was fogged in the night before Flight 236 and again the night after. But for Piché the sky was clear as glass, and he spotted the airfield from 160 kilometres out, confirming the sighting by having the tower flash its runway markers in the early-morning light. The diversion over Gander was lucky, too: the course change moved the plane a hundred kilometres closer to Terceira; Piché wouldn’t have made the island starting from his original course. He next talked about “some higher force . . . somebody [who] gave us the tools to land the aircraft.” Finally, he conceded his own role: “I became the plane that night. I was thinking of doing something, and the plane was doing it. I can’t recall physically doing a left or a right turn. When I wanted the plane to go right, the plane went right.”

I had come to Montreal determined not to talk about the prison sentence Piché had served in the American South. He had made no attempt to hide his past when Air Transat hired him; there is nothing in Transport Canada’s aviation regulations preventing ex-cons from holding a commercial pilot’s licence. I didn’t think his jail time had any relation to the flight or Piché’s competence — he was another man in another time — and I thought he had at least earned the right to see that part of the story fade away. But as it turns out prison had everything to do with Flight 236, because prison was where Piché met death and learned how to confront it. He was always alone there, surrounded by cliques that didn’t know what to make of him. “You’re in survival mode all the time,” he told me. “I was the only one who spoke French. This guy asked me, where are you from? I said Mont-Joli. He said, where’s Mont-Joli? I said, in Quebec. He said, where’s Quebec? I said, it’s in Canada. He said, where’s Canada?”

Piché’s mind went to prison when the plane died, and he found the hope he needed to do his job. “I’ve jumped so many obstacles in my life. Death was there that night, but I said, the hell with it. I’m going to jump it just like I did the others.”

He is flying again, between motivational lectures to high school students and prisoners, and before we parted he told me about his next flight: Toronto to Lisbon, possibly in the same Airbus A330 he had flown for Flight 236. He seemed amused by the irony and left with another smile.

MARGARET HAD CALLED me from Lisbon two days after Lajes, sounding as if she had been to the brink of something awful and couldn’t find her way back. She had had speech therapy to correct a lisp when she was younger and didn’t get over her habit of talkingamillionmilesanhour until she started lecturing undergrads as a teacher’s assistant. She still slips back into it when nervous. As she spoke over the phone, I could barely keep up. Her words came as a flood, and I hated that I could hear her crying in the pauses.

Moments after Flight 236 touched down in Lajes, Air Transat had dispatched another plane to carry passengers from the Azores to Lisbon. The flight had been uneventful, but it had terrified Margaret nevertheless, and as we talked she was already anxious about the flight home.

Back in Toronto, she talked about Flight 236 almost every day for a year, always calling it a plane crash. I spent months trying to convince her to say “crash landing,” thinking it would somehow make the memories easier. John was different: I can’t recall him ever starting a conversation about the plane, and when he does talk about it, it’s in measured tones.

Margaret is finishing her Ph.D. in neuropsychology this year, and since the flight she has taken a serious interest in post-traumatic stress disorder. According to a 1988 study, fifty-four percent of airplane crash survivors experience PTSD. Margaret’s U of T therapist has told her she shows some of the classic symptoms. There’s the amnesia. When I first interviewed her about this story, she initially couldn’t remember details of the glide: “It was dark, and then it wasn’t so dark when we ran across the field.” The memories would come only after John said something to cue them. Other symptoms include flashbacks and nightmares. Margaret had bad dreams for months after Flight 236, often hearing Portuguese screams in her sleep. “I think I can understand them, but it’s hard to make out the words, and I get scared,” she says. “I can feel the plane going down; I know I’m going to die. I wind up inside the cockpit — watching. Down and down and down.” Three days after our meeting she e-mailed me to say the nightmares were back.

I wanted to know more about PTSD, so Margaret referred me to Dr. Anthony Feinstein, an associate professor of psychiatry at U of T and director of neuropsychiatry at Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre. Feinstein is world renowned for his work on PTSD. “Some people say time heals all,” he told me as we sat in his basement office in Sunnybrook’s M Wing. “But my message is, it doesn’t. If you don’t address these issues, over time they get worse. It’s not just the trauma that you’re living with: now you have dysfunctional relationships, problems at work, social difficulties, etc. Life becomes very hard.”

With PTSD, your world grows closer and louder, and you find yourself building walls to keep out the noise. You begin to avoid what causes the stress. Since Flight 236, Daniel Rodrigues, the student helicopter pilot, has been too afraid to fly. He and his wife had planned a trip to Florida last fall, but they had to cancel because they couldn’t board the plane. Marco Scocco, who continued on his trip to the Algarve, said that during those two weeks he would begin to cry for no reason; he still can’t shake the nightmares.

When Feinstein started to talk about how PTSD victims have an exaggerated startle response, how “you’re sensitized to danger, so you see it everywhere,” it reminded me of Margaret. About a year ago, we were driving up the 427, going to a nursing home near Rockwood, wondering if this would be the trip we said goodbye to our grandmother. I was talking to fill the silence, and I mentioned a newspaper article I’d just read about plans to bury the Gardiner. “Oh, my God — they can’t!” Margaret said, too loud for the car. “Thousandswoulddie.” What? “The tunnel would collapse. No one could get out. They would all die.”

I turned to look at her and saw the face she used to make when we would stay up late to watch Freddy Kreuger. A moment later, she saw a plane approaching Pearson and worried, as she always does now, that it was coming in too low.

© 2003, Matthew McKinnon

Photograph by francescoprocida (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Matthew McKinnon

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    I used to be a writer. I still am, but used to be, too

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