Pearson Airport has been around since the 1930’s, when it was known as Malton Airport. In the 82 years since then, the airport has only been host to nine accidents. All things considered that’s quite impressive and reassuring.
Of all nine incidents that occurred at the airport, only two resulted in the loss of life. However one of those suffered a mass loss of life and that is the topic for today’s Mississauga Retrospective; the harrowing Air Canada 621 crash.
Captain Peter Hamilton and First Officer Donald Rowland were the the pilots of the Air Canada 621 flight on July 5th, 1970. Hamilton was a former WWII pilot who had racked up over 19000 hours of flying with Air Canada. The flight was a regular route from Montreal to Los Angeles, that would make a stopover at Pearson Airport. Amazingly, the plane was a brand new 4-engine McDonnell-Douglas DC-8-63 that had only been delivered to Air Canada a few weeks prior.
The plane was made-up of 99 passengers and seven crew members, two of which were pregnant flight attendants. The plane left Montreal at 7:17 am for its short 50-minute flight to Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Things went about as normal as usual until descent.
Air Canada 621 is one of the earliest flights to have a full recorded transcript of the conversation between the pilots. As such we know both pilots agreed that they didn’t like arming the spoilers on the wings (which help the plane slow down on the runway) during the approach to the airport. In fact, Captain Hamilton didn’t like arming them until they were on ground. For some reason however, he asked for them unexpectedly about 60 feet above ground. The request must have surprised Second Officer Rowland, because he, in turn, didn’t just arm the spoilers but fully deployed them.
The mistake caused the plane to descend much faster than normal and the plane struck the ground with the right wing. Shockingly, Captain Hamilton was able to get the plane back up in the air and even rose to 3000 feet again. The two pilots were somehow unaware of the extent of the damage done – they’d lost an engine and the right wing was engulfed in flames – and casually asked air control about landing on another runway.
They were unable to land on the next runway because of debris from their plane. The two began realising something was very wrong as they flew away from Pearson, heading over Brampton. More engines on the wings exploded, causing the plane to plummet towards the ground in a ball of flames. The transcript recorded the final few lines from the pilots as they realised their right wing completely blew off, but omitted the reactions of the flight crew and passengers out of respect.
At 8:09 am, flight 621 hit the ground at 200 mph. The plane crashed in the farm field of the Burgsma family, a mere 200 feet from their home (you can see how close it was in the first image of the crash above). The impact shattered the windows in the home but, much more devastatingly, took the lives of all 109 on board.
Clean-up crews and forensic experts helped clear the scene over a period of days and weeks, attempting to identify all the victims. Six months later, the official report stated that the crash had been due to pilot error. It was suggested for future planes that it be made impossible to fully deploy the spoilers during flight, with other safety precautions being put forth.
Monuments were erected in the crash site to mark the mass loss of life. However, many years later, the site was developed and is now a busy intersection with businesses on all sides. To commemorate the disaster that occurred in 1970, a memorial garden was built at Brampton’s Degrey Drive. The garden features 109 white stones to mark the victims.
And so ends the story of the Air Canada 621 crash of 1970. The crash was a horrifying event and a result of human error. What makes the crash even more frustrating is that if Captain Hamilton had of just attempted to crash land the plane after it struck the runway, perhaps there may have been some lives saved. What happened is what happened however, so rather than lament what could have been, let’s just remember those who lost their lives that day. And, if you find yourself in Brampton sometime, visit the Memorial Garden and pay some respects.