On a sunny Sunday morning on July 5, 1970, Air Canada Flight 621 crashed in a farmer's field in Woodbridge, Ontario, just north of Toronto. The McDonnell Douglas DC-8 from Montreal was on a stopover at Toronto en route to Los Angeles, California. All 109 people aboard (100 passengers and 9 crew) died. It was Toronto's worst ever airline disaster1.

The crash

Around 8 am that Sunday morning, Flight 621 is on final approach to Toronto International Airport (YYZ), today called Pearson International Airport. The day is sunny and clear. Passengers in the cabin are undoubtedly peering out the windows looking at the airport's runways, hangers, and planes.

The flight crew talks about the high cost of housing in Toronto as they come down on final approach to runway 32. The First Officer jokes about the pollution from the Boeing 727 that is taking off on runway 32 as Flight 621 comes in:

First Officer: "He is leaving a smoke screen for you, just to make it a little challenging."

As the plane comes in, the sound of an apparent power reduction can be heard on the cockpit voice recorder2.

Captain: "No. No. No."
First Officer: "Sorry, oh sorry, Pete!"

The DC-8's ground spoilers were inadvertently deployed by the First Officer at a height of 60 feet above the runway. On the cockpit recorder, the aircraft can be heard powering back up, followed immediately by the sound of a jarring impact.

The jet slams into the tarmac, taking heavy damage. Unknown to the flight crew, the #4 engine has been torn completely off and left behind on runway 32. However, the aircraft remains otherwise intact and bounces up into the air.

First Officer: "Sorry Pete!"
Captain: "Okay"
Captain: "We have lost our power."

The captain immediately initiates an overshoot and the pilots fight the crippled airplane back higher into the air. The crew does not yet realize how heavily damaged the plane is.

The Toronto control tower offers the crew the choice of another (short) runway for an emergency stop or contact with Toronto Departure Control for a go-around (circling the airport for another attempt to land).

Tower: "Air Canada 621. Check you on the overshoot and you can contact departure on 199 or do you wish to come in for a mile on 5 right?"
Captain: "We'll go around. I think we are all right."
First Officer: "Roger. We are go all the way."
Tower: "Okay contact departure."

As the crew deal with the trouble indicators flaring across their control boards, the Second Officer reports "Number 4 generator is gone." They shut off the 'cross-feed' fuel flow to #4 engine, and Toronto Departure Control calls to ask their intentions.

First Officer: "Roger. We would like to circle back for another attempt on 32."
Departure Control: "Okay. Runway is closed. Debris on the runway."

The debris is Flight 621's #4 engine. Departure Control offers them runway 23 left, and provides wind data and a new heading. During this time the aircraft has been climbing. They will reach a maximum height of 3,000 ft.

Things begin to become chaotic in the cockpit. The captain realizes that #4 engine has failed, and the second officer begins calling "Fuel! Fuel!". It is possible that from his position, the second officer can see fuel spraying from the ruptured fuel line that fed engine #4.

The captain orders power cut to #4, but soon he discovers that engine #3 has failed, too.

Captain: "The whole thing is jammed."

A loud (unidentified) crackling noise is now heard on the cockpit tape.

First Officer: "What was that?"
First Officer: "What happened there, Peter?"
Captain: "That's number 4 (unintelligible) Something's happened (unintelligible)."
First Officer: "Oh, look, we've got a ..."

A loud explosion is now heard on the cockpit tape.

First Officer: "Pete, sorry."

A second, louder explosion is heard on the cockpit tape. Investigators believe that this sound is a fuel tank explosion.

Captain: "All right."
Departure Control: "621. The status of your aircraft, please."

At this point, the DC-8's right wing folds up and loudly tears free of the airplane, along with the #3 engine. The cockpit voice recorder stops soon after this sound is recorded.

The aircraft came down in flames 11 miles from the airport. The plane was totally destroyed on impact. See "References" below for a link to the accident site photo, showing a large crater filled with jumbled debris.

This being 1970, there were no cellular phones in the passenger cabin. We can only imagine what terror the final three minutes of Flight 621 held for the passengers after the 60 foot drop, the overshoot, and the subsequent disintegration of the aircraft. Unlike the crew, the passengers would have been able to see the extensive damage to the right wing, and likely the fuel streaming from the #4 fuel line, waiting to ignite.

Follow-up / safety actions

Investigators cited a faulty design for the spoiler handle where it performed one function to arm the mechanism, and another for deployment. McDonnell Douglas denied there was a design flaw. The FAA issued Airworthiness Directive AD 70-25-02 cautioning pilots against in-flight operation of ground spoilers and requiring a warning placard on all DC-8s.

On June 23, 1973, a Loftleidir DC-8 made a short, hard landing, after the first officer inadvertently activated the ground spoilers during the final phase of the landing approach. The aircraft hit the runway and was extensively damaged. 38 people were injured. The FAA subsequently recommended a spoiler handle lockout to prevent operation of the handle while in flight.

Memorial

At the heart of Toronto's Mount Pleasant Cemetery, just east of the Cremation Gardens complex, is plot 24-1. Located under trees between two small benches is a memorial stone for the victims of Flight 621. It bears this simple inscription: "IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES 5 JULY 1970 FLIGHT 621 WOODBRIDGE ONTARIO". On another stone lying flat on the ground are the names of each passenger and crew member from the flight. As is common for air disaster monuments of this nature, the air carrier's name (Air Canada) is not mentioned.

52 of the crash victims are buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery -- 49 identified, and 3 unidentified.

The site of the actual crash in Woodbridge has no memorial.

Afterword

If you feel the need to read something more uplifting, try the story of Air Transat Flight 236.

Footnotes

  1. As time of writing. Hopefully this won't ever change.
  2. All quoted material taken verbatim from the cockpit voice recorder transcripts. Note that CVR transcripts represent investigator's "best guess" about what was said in a noisy and chaotic environment.

References

An article about witnesses to the crash, 30 years after:
http://www.canoe.ca/TravelNewsNYCrash/011114_forget-sun.html

The crash photo:
http://www.airdisaster.com/photos/ac621/1.jpg

CVR flight log:
http://aviation-safety.net/cvr/cvr_ac621.html

Associated accident report:
http://aviation-safety.net/database/1970/700705-0.htm

Another copy of the crash log:
http://www.planecrashinfo.com/cvr700705.htm

More info on the cause:
http://aviationcrashes.com/photo/ac621.html

Mount Pleasant memorial:
http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=5511
http://www.mountpleasantgroupofcemeteries.ca/about_us/fileys_stories/Air%20Canada%20Flight%20621.asp

Memorial photo:
http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pis&GRid=5511&PIgrid=5511&PIcrid=639401&PIpi=82193&

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