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Flight 358 in Toronto - The Best Crash Ever?

by Dr. Todd Curtis

On the afternoon of 2 August 2005, Air France flight 358, an A340-300 arriving from Paris, attempted a landing a Toronto's Pearson International Airport in the midst of a heavy thunderstorm. What transpired over the next few hours was a serious airline accident, a major media event, and a remarkable story of survival. The aircraft landed on the runway, but was unable to stop before departing the runway and coming to rest in a ravine. Even before the aircraft came to a stop, the aircraft caught fire. Although the plane was fully loaded with passengers and reportedly, only half of the passenger doors could be opened, all 297 passengers and 12 crew members escaped the aircraft, with about 40 sustaining minor or serious injuries.

Because of the timing of the event in middle of the afternoon and the presence of several cameras from media outlets in the Toronto area, the crash and the aftermath became an instant news event, preempting regular programming throughout the U.S. and Canada. Viewers throughout North America and the rest of the world were able to view live pictures of a burning wide-bodied airliner while hearing repeatedly that all of the passengers and crew escaped death.

For aviation professionals, events such as the crash of Flight 358 are a reminder that in spite of all of the knowledge gained over the last century of flight, that those who fly still face risks. This accident was also a reminder that the passengers and crew all survived in large part due the regulations, designs, and procedures that were put in place in the wake of insights gained from the hundreds of accidents and thousands of serious incidents that occurred before Flight 358. For aviation professionals, seeing everyone survive a serious accident is not a reason to rejoice as much as it is a source of quite pride in the hearts of the many dedicated professionals in the air transportation industry. In my case, the accident was an opportunity to respond to several media requests for information and analysis of the accident.

While the aviation professional may be quite reserved in their reactions, the average person usually has a much different perspective. On the evening of the accident, I called my mother to see how she was feeling. She enjoys watching CNN, and certainly had quite an eyeful of plane crash images that day. I had just had a trip to Toronto a few weeks before, and I wanted to keep her from worrying about my past or future plane trips (no stranger to air travel, her first flight was over a half century ago in a Lockheed Constellation). My worries were unfounded. One of the first things she said was that this was "the best crash ever." She was downright excited about the way things had turned out and could hardly believe that everyone got out alive. For once, I did not have to try to keep her from worrying about my flying habits and for that, I was relieved. At the same time, I had what I believe was the good judgment to hold my tongue and to not temper her exuberance with a sober analysis of how decades of engineering and procedural improvements have made accidents more survivable. During that conversation, the though flashed in my head that if my mother (representing average passengers everywhere) feels better about the risks of flying after watching the events of Flight 358 unfold, who am I to get in the way of that feeling.

Dr. Todd Curtis is president of the Foundation and creator of the web site Todd Curtis conducted research in several areas of aviation risk assessment and accident prevention. Author of the book Understanding Aviation Safety Data as well as a number of articles on Web site planning and airline safety. Licensed private pilot.

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