Air Canada Flight 621
By JEB BOHN
Aviation has always fascinated me. It started as a child with trips to Raleigh-Durham International Airport to pick up or drop off family members. This was a time where anyone could enter the terminal area and go to whichever gate they wanted.
While the adults said their goodbyes, I would watch the planes landing, taxiing, and taking off. I didn’t understand the concept of flight; it was simply magic.
That lasted until I started seeing articles about aviation disasters. As kids, we often think adults are infallible and surely those in charge of piloting these majestic planes are a cut above that.
Of course, we’re all human and humans are flawed beings prone to mistakes and complacency. Studying aviation accident investigations shows that sometimes a minor oversight or a poorly timed error is the difference between a safe flight and tragedy.
In this entry, we’ll be looking at the crash of Air Canada Flight 621, a McDonnell Douglas DC-8 that crashed in what is now Brampton, Ontario, on July 5, 1970.
Air Canada Flight 621 was scheduled to fly from Montreal to Los Angeles, with a stopover in Toronto. The flight crew consisted of Captain Peter Hamilton, First Officer Donald Rowland, and Flight Engineer Harry Hill.
During the first leg of the flight, Hamilton and Rowland discussed how they would deploy the aircraft’s ground spoilers. These spoilers—located on each wing—are deployed after touchdown during landing in order to disrupt airflow and reduce lift.
The approved procedure was to arm the spoilers during the pre-landing check. Once the aircraft touched, a sensor in its landing gear would automatically deploy the spoilers as long as the crew properly armed them.
Both Hamilton and Rowland disliked this method as they worried it could lead to the spoilers accidentally deploying during flight, leading to a rapid and uncontrollable descent.
Having flown together on multiple occasions, each pilot had their own preferred method—neither of which was officially approved. Hamilton—when at the controls—liked to bypass the arming procedure completely, opting to have his First Officer manually deploy the spoilers upon landing.
When Rowland served as the pilot in command, he liked to have them armed during the flare, just before touchdown. Since Hamilton was at the controls, Rowland would deploy the spoilers manually upon touching down.
I should note that Hill called for the correct arming procedure, as evidenced by the cockpit voice recorder.
While both pilots favored unsanctioned spoiler-deployment methods, they had previously executed these procedures without incident. That’s not to say their choices were above scrutiny; if anything, these inclinations increased the chance of disaster should any part of their routine change.
As fate would have it, that’s exactly what happened.
During landing, a frustrated Hamilton said, “Give them to me on the flare. I have given up. I’m tired of fighting it.” He then reduced engine power and uttered one word to Rowland: “Okay.”
The aircraft was still 60 feet above the runway.
Upon hearing this, Rowland immediately deployed the spoilers instead of simply arming them. With the airflow disrupted, the DC-8 began sinking. Hamilton realized the error and responded by applying full thrust and pulling back on the yoke. Rowland, recognizing his mistake, apologizes to the captain. The plane’s nose raises up, though it is not enough to arrest its sink rate.
The aircraft strikes the runway hard; the impact causing the number 4 engine and its pylon to be torn away. In the cockpit, the crew sees that #4 is inoperative but does not realize the extent of the damage.
They lift off again; the spoilers retract as the crew initiates a go-around to prepare for a second landing attempt. Rowland contacts air traffic control and requests the same runway. Because of the extensive amount of debris left behind, the controller directs flight 621 to runway twenty-three left.
As the plane climbs out, fuel leaking from the damaged right wing ignites. This leads to an explosion causing more disfigurement to the wing. A second explosion follows, causing the number 3 engine to break away. Another explosion destroys a significant portion of the wing, rendering the aircraft uncontrollable and resulting in the plane entering a steep, nose-down dive.
Less than 3 minutes after impacting the runway, Air Canada Flight 621 impacted a field in the Gore Township (now part of Brampton) at approximately 220 knots. All on board perish.
During their investigation, the inquiry board discovered that concern over ground spoilers inadvertently deploying on a DC-8 in flight was widespread among Air Canada pilots. A captain with the airline stated the following to the board:
When I converted on to the DC-8, it was fairly common practice among DC-8 Captains, for reasons of safety, and in order to obtain smooth touchdowns, to omit the arming of the spoilers during the Before Landing Check and to apply them manually after touchdown. However, this practice was discouraged.
Most Check Pilots are reluctant to report a competent line pilot in such a manner as to incriminate him and, I suspect, some Check Pilots were in favour of the above so-called malpractice in that it reduced the number of bad landings. I suggest this as a reason for the dearth of Check Flight Reports which made mention of this practice.
They issued several recommendations in their official report (which you can read here), including modifying the spoiler lever to ensure the flight crew could not deploy them during flight. They also suggested that McDonnell Douglas reinforce the wings and fuel tanks of the DC-8. It was also advised that Air Canada should clarify the proper procedure for arming and deploying ground spoilers.
Fifty-two of the victims were laid to rest at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. In May 1971, a monument inscribed with the names of all 109 passengers and crew was installed.
In June 2002, over 30 years after the crash, local resident Paul Cardin visited the site and discovered debris, including bone fragments. A subsequent police investigation led to a large-scale search of the area, an endeavor that yielded hundreds of bone fragments. A memorial park opened at the site on June 7, 2013.