TORONTO (Reuters) - Pilots need clear rules and better training on how to properly handle a landing in severe weather, a Canadian safety agency concluded on Wednesday, following its investigation into the crash two years ago of an Air France jetliner in a heavy Toronto thunderstorm.
The Canadian Transportation Safety Board said the crew of the Airbus A340 was “qualified and competent,” but came in too high and too fast, and ran out of space on a slippery runway in August 2005.
The crew failed to calculate how much tarmac was needed to land the plane safely, investigators said. The aircraft caught fire after it overshot the runway at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and plunged into a small ravine.
All 297 passengers and 12 crew escaped down emergency chutes. No one died.
“If there were a clear standard for crews to know when they can’t land in the face of a bad thunderstorm, then we feel that safety will be improved,” said Real Levasseur, the board’s chief investigator.
The board made seven recommendations on how to prevent such accidents in the future, noting that since the Toronto crash, 10 large airliners had gone off runways in bad weather around the world.
The recommendations include better training for pilots, a requirement that crews calculate safe landing distances, and at least 300 meters (330 yards) of safety area at the end of major Canadian runways.
The board also noted that several passengers grabbed carry-on luggage before evacuating the Air France plane, despite shouted instructions by crew to leave it behind. The board urged these instructions be included in a preflight briefing.
The plane landed in a “severe and rapidly changing thunderstorm with shifting winds and limited visibility,” the report said.
At the time, it was being flown by the co-pilot. Investigators also said a passenger was in the cockpit during landing, which was consistent with Air France policy but was against Canadian regulations, which were overhauled after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Airport controllers had warned the pilots that there were thunderstorms and lightning strikes in the vicinity.
When the aircraft was 200 feet above the ground the wind started to shift and became a tail wind, pushing the airliner off its flight path and boosting its speed.
“The captain committed to the landing as he believed that this was safer than conducting a missed approach into the storm,” Levasseur told a news conference.
But heavy rain severely cut visibility and the plane touched down 3,800 feet down the 9,000-foot runway rather than at the 1,000-foot mark as planned.
“The crew never calculated the landing distance required for the aircraft’s weight for a contaminated runway. Therefore they did not realize what their margin for error was,” the investigator said.
Air France said it would not comment in detail on the TSB report but said it agreed with the recommendations, in particular the ones on bringing in worldwide standards for landing in thunderstorms and better training for pilots.
Air France noted that the recommendations were addressed to the entire aviation community. “(We) are convinced that the problems that have been identified will only be resolved if everyone involved ... accepts the need to work together,” it said in a statement.
Canada’s minister of transport, Lawrence Cannon, said in a statement he “fully supports the intent of the recommendations ... and departmental officials are currently reviewing the contents of the report.”
The government has 90 days to decide what to do with the recommendations. The TSB has no formal international influence, but foreign counterparts usually respond to such reports.
With additional writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Rob Wilson