By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 5, 2005
TORONTO, Aug. 4 -- The Air France jet that overshot a runway on Tuesday barreled off the pavement at 90 miles per hour, a dangerously high speed that led to renewed calls yesterday to make runways safer.
All 309 people on board managed to escape, but some aviation experts said the crash could have been avoided if the Toronto airport had installed a new kind of concrete at the end of its runways. The Air Line Pilots Association last night said the accident demonstrated the dangers of inadequate runway safety areas. "The crash of Air France Flt. 358 in Toronto occurred at an international airport that, unfortunately, does not meet international standards," the association said in a written statement.
Officials at Toronto Pearson International Airport yesterday said they think the runways are safe.
Safety officials also said the crash provided new insight into the flammability of materials on newer airplanes. The fire-retardant material now required in aircraft cabins may have helped slow the spread of flames and smoke, enabling all crew members and passengers to escape. Forty-three people sustained minor injuries.
Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the accident. Yesterday, they disclosed that the crew did not declare an emergency to air traffic controllers as the plane landed.
To reduce the likelihood of runaway jets, 14 airports in the United States have installed a crushable concrete material at the end of runways. The material is a mixture of water, foam and concrete and is designed to collapse under a plane's weight, to make the plane sink into the surface to come to an immediate stop.
It is unclear whether the Engineered Material Arresting System, could have stopped the Airbus A340-300 involved in Tuesday's accident. But the technology has helped to stop three planes at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, including a 747 cargo plane flown by Polar Air earlier this year.
"In this case, chances are it would have stopped it," said Richard F. Healing, who until last week was a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Washington's three major airports do not use the crushable concrete.
"We should be looking at having it at all airports," said John J. Goglia, a former NTSB board member. The pilots association agrees.
The NTSB has recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration require airports to have 1,000 feet of flat, empty space beyond each runway to prevent planes from crashing into roads or buildings located at the end of airport runways. In March 2000, a Southwest Airlines plane overshot a runway in Burbank, Calif., and plowed through a fence and a busy road, stopping just feet from a gas station. All aboard survived.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has not made similar recommendations.
The Air France jet's wheels left marks on the runway and cut through the grass down a slope into a ravine at the Toronto airport. For decades, pilots have urged Canadian officials to build a bridge or somehow extend the runway at the airport. An Air-Canada DC-9 aborted a takeoff from a different runway in 1978 and ended up in a different location in the same ravine. The 1978 crash killed two people and injured 105.
Steve Shaw, spokesman for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, said the ravine's slope, which had been a steep drop-off, was changed after the 1978 crash. "Our runway design has allowed a slope down to the ravine, which probably stopped the Air France plane," Shaw said.
Several factors probably contributed to fact that no one was killed aboard the Airbus A340, safety officials said. At the end of the flight, the plane probably had only an hour's worth of fuel on board, which reduced the chance that the fire could have been much larger or spread more quickly.
Also, new regulations requiring fire-retardant treatment of seat cushions, carpet and other materials may have curbed the fire and smoke.
"Those materials make a difference," said Carol J. Carmody, a former NTSB board member.
In an NTSB study of aircraft evacuations published in 2000, investigators found that most deaths occur from smoke inhalation and that most injuries occur from using the evacuation slides.
Yesterday, safety investigators here suffered a minor setback in the probe when they discovered that the plane's "black boxes," which contain the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, could not be downloaded using Canadian equipment. The boxes were to be flown last night to France, where the information will be downloaded.
Investigators said they would continue their investigation into the factors that may have contributed to the crash, including the aircraft's performance, the pilots' decisions and the weather, which was reported to include thunderstorms and lighting and wind gusts of 30 mph.
Investigators said they confirmed that three of the plane's four engines appeared to be working properly at the time of the aircraft. The fourth engine was damaged by fire, investigators said.
Real Levasseur, the accident's chief investigator for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said all of the plane's parts had been located, an indication that nothing broke apart before the crash. He downplayed the possibility that the plane had been struck by lightning, saying previous incidents have shown that planes perform fine after being struck by lightning. "We don't have any information to indicate a lightning strike to an aircraft is dangerous," he said.
Staff researcher Bob Lyford contributed to this report.