A terrifying slide off the runway at Ottawa International Airport during torrential rainfall was not the ending that the reverend Janet Evans, her husband Michael McQuaid and their daughter, Hilary, expected to their family vacation in Disney World.
The family was on board United Airlines Flight 3363, carrying 44 passengers and three crew.
“We’d had a great time on holiday, and for two hours the flight from Chicago to Ottawa was totally uneventful,” Evans told the Leader. “But as we came in to Ottawa around 3:40 p.m. (on September 4), we could see out the window that it was getting much, much darker. It was also raining heavily at the airport.
I now think there must have been a torrential burst just as the pilot touched down.”
The United Airlines Flight skidded off the Ottawa runway, overshooting the tarmac and spinning 180 degrees. It hit the grass, and then banged up on its side. The plane sustained some damage to the undercarriage and one wing, and fire crews, emergency vehicles and hazardous materials teams surrounded it within minutes.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, which is investigating the crash, has possession of the plane’s flight recorder.
The accident was the third at the Ottawa Airport involving an Embraer 145 plane. The first occurred in 2004, and in 2010, another United Express flight also overshot the runway.
Evans and McQuaid were seated together in row 16, over the wing of the plane, with their daughter Hilary across the aisle from them.
“When you land,” Evans remembered, “normally there is that jerk from the reverse thrust that tells you the plane’s brakes have engaged. Not this time. Mike and I both knew the plane was going way too fast: there was no sense of braking at all.
There was no warning that anything was wrong from the cockpit: there really wasn’t time.
But the passengers knew.
We were definitely hydro-planing. We were tipping from side to side, back and forth, and then the entire plane spun around. It was pretty terrifying. People were screaming and yelling. Mike and I were, I think, fairly calm, but Hilary was stricken. At the last moment I reached out and held her hand as everything was happening. If the plane had buckled or flipped, well, we wouldn’t be here to tell this story.”
Evans does not fault the pilot.
“I’ve been reading some blogs and comments about the pilot, and most are very negative,” she said, “one even calling him an idiot. Well, as far as I can tell those remarks are all being made by people who weren’t on the plane, weren’t even at the airport.
That pilot had to have tower clearance to land the plane, and he couldn’t have anticipated a burst of torrential rain. He compensated on the spot for the hydro-planing and kept us alive.”
The passengers sat on the plane in “a sudden silence” after the landing, while the flight attendant urged everyone to stay calm. The wait seemed long to Evans, especially as there was a strong smell of fuel throughout the plane. (The plane was covered with foam after the passengers disembarked).
When they finally got out (“on regular stairs, no chutes; kind of anti-climatic,” Evans smiled), the passengers stood on the rain soaked tarmac for a further 10 or more minutes waiting for transport. Fire and medical personnel were on hand and Evans has high praise for their efficiency and care.
Finally, “of all things, an OC Transpo bus came up to collect us. There didn’t appear to be any airport transport. The bus was too small for all 44 of us to sit, so many had to stand to the terminal. There it was the same problem. We were separated from other passengers as we had to leave all our luggage, including passports on the plane, and we were put in a small room for several hours. Again, there was not enough seating for everyone. The Ottawa airport just didn’t seem to be prepared to deal with an emergency like this.”
Still, there were moments of laughter that Evans said definitely helped diffuse anxieties.
“On the bus, the driver said, ‘Everyone needs a stiff drink, I bet.’ A voice at the back shouted out, ‘Stiff drink! I need the whole bottle!’
And then this little girl, no more than seven, who had smiled throughout the whole ordeal, piped up, ‘Mommy, what’s a stiff drink?’
“Later, one man said to me, ‘I guess we’ll all have lots of stories to tell.’ I said, ‘I’m a minister. Just wait until next Sunday’s sermon!’”
“It was a frightening experience,” Janet Evans said. “You only realize in retrospect how terrifying it truly was. I think we can thank the good Lord that we came out of it well and alive. Mike and I will fly again for sure. Hilary is still a little ambivalent. But I do feel that this entire incident will have to be very thoroughly investigated by the authorities.
None of the passengers or crew on Flight 3363 was injured. We were lucky.”