TORONTO – The Air France (search) jet that skidded off the runway and burst into flames earlier this week landed farther down the runway than it should have, but it is too soon to know if that was the reason for the crash, aviation investigators said Friday.
All 309 people on board escaped with their lives after Flight 358 (search) from Paris crashed at Toronto's Lester B. Pearson International Airport (search) Tuesday afternoon. The flight data and voice recorders were recovered the next day.
Real Levasseur, chief of the Transportation Safety Board team investigating the craft, said officials in France who have been downloading data from the cockpit voice recorders — the so-called black boxes — announced Friday most of the indicators from the boxes appeared intact and were not destroyed in the fire.
"I'm very happy to report we have good, solid data that will allow us to start removing wreckage from the site much earlier than we would have anticipated," Levasseur said.
Levasseur said all interviews with the co-pilot — whom Air France said was at the controls during Tuesday's landing — and cabin crew were complete.
"These people can now all go home to their families and loved ones, who I am sure have been very anxious to hold them again in their arms," he said, praising them again for having evacuated the plane in under two minutes.
Veronique Brachet, an Air France spokeswoman, said the pilot remained in the hospital in Toronto with compressed vertebrae. She did not know whether the pilot had spoken with investigators.
Levasseur said the Airbus 340 landed too far down the 9,000-foot runway before skidding some 200 yards, landing nose down in a ravine amid torrential rains and winds.
"We do have some information that the aircraft did land long," Levasseur said at a news briefing. "We are still in the process of gathering all that data to find out what that means."
When pressed on whether landing long would have contributed to the crash, Levasseur said: "An aircraft like the 340 should land well toward the back; how long exactly depends on weight, heavy winds, there are a number of factors," he said. "We will certainly be looking at information; and if it turns out the aircraft did land further down the runway ... we will try to determine whether this had a major or critical effect."
Witnesses and some passengers have said that it appeared that Air France Flight 358 from Paris was coming in too fast and too long when it landed at about 4 p.m.
An Air France spokesman in Paris declined to comment, saying the carrier would wait for the result of a full investigation before publicly discussing the possible cause of the crash.
Some aviation experts said the aircraft could have been pushed by a strong cross winds at the same time the aircraft landed on a slick runway, decreasing tire traction and causing a hydroplaning effect.
"I think they landed a little fast, a little long and probably hydroplaned," said Capt. Tom Bunn, a retired commercial airline pilot of 30 years for Pan Am and United Airlines who runs fear-of-flying courses.
Levasseur on Thursday dismissed questions about whether the east-west 24L runway was long and safe enough, saying it met international standards.
However, the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 64,000 airline pilots at 41 airlines in Canada and the United States, disputed this, saying the ravine at the end of the runway may have contributed to the crash.
In a statement Thursday, the union said the crash occurred "at an international airport that, unfortunately, does not meet international standards."
Canada's Transport Minister Jean Lapierre said Friday he had been at the crash site and spoke with investigators about the ravine that runs parallel to one of the country's busiest freeways, Highway 401.
"Some people are telling me that if there wasn't a ravine, the plane would have ended up on the 401 at 4 o'clock in the afternoon and you would have had more deaths than what you had," he said. "But all of this is going to be examined."
Levasseur said there was no evidence, meanwhile, that lightning struck the Airbus A340 as it was landing, as reported by some witnesses. "The wings and wing tips are in pretty good shape."
He also said investigators have determined that all four engine thrust-reversers were in operation and working fine, "So that's a good sign."
The flight data and voice recorders were sent to TSB headquarters in Quebec. However, Levasseur said Thursday that it would take several days for special computer equipment to be sent from France to download the information and that would delay the investigation and removal of the wreckage.