How an Air Canada 'hard landing' in 2015 sent this family on a 'terrifying' journey

Five years ago, Jennifer and Trevor Lightfoot celebrated the end of a sunny cruise and boarded a flight from Miami to Toronto before connecting home to Halifax.

Jennifer was eager to get back to her job as a registered nurse and Trevor, a minister, to the pulpit at his church in Bedford, N.S. Both were excited to see their three sons, Braeden, Rylin and Jace.

The Air Canada flight on March 29, 2015 was uneventful until they started circling the Halifax airport due to poor visibility. The pilot announced they would try to land in the snow storm. The Lightfoots weren't worried. Nobody braced for an emergency.

"I remember looking out the window, because I like to watch the landing," she says. "I actually quite enjoyed flying. It was dark and it was a blizzard, so you couldn't see very well, but I said, 'I see ground.'"

The gusting wind had pushed the plane off its flight path. It hit power lines before slamming into the ground 200 metres short of the runway. The jet bounced, tore through a navigation antenna, bounced again, losing its landing gear, before skidding to a stop in a shower of sparks.

'There was stuff flying everywhere'

The impact dislodged her entire seat, throwing her around the aircraft. She bashed into things. "I couldn't look forward, because I was scared I'd see what was going to impale me," she says. "There was stuff flying everywhere."

Trevor gripped his arm rests and expected the plane to burst into flames. He realized they had survived. His wife fell off the slide leading out of the plane. At some point, she dislocated her shoulder.

The crew and passengers waited by the wrecked plane in the storm for 50 minutes before the airport could transport them inside. That night, the Lightfoots thought they'd miraculously survived the crash without serious injury and went home to their sons, while two dozen of the 133 passengers went directly to hospital.

The problems started when they woke up the next day. "I started feeling very unwell. Incredibly severe headaches. I couldn't see straight, I couldn't walk. I was off-balance. It was quite dramatic," Jennifer says.

She lost part of the vision in her right eye. She started doing physical and mental therapy, hoping she could soon get back to normal.

'My eyes cause me a lot of trouble'

But as the years went by, she realized this was her new normal. She had hundreds of seizures. Unable to work, she took permanent long-term disability leave from nursing.

"Life now is completely different. I struggle going to activities with the children. I get frequent headaches; noise and lights are very troublesome. My eyes cause me a lot of trouble."

Her husband found himself struggling to stay focused and felt tired all the time. Three years after the crash, they ventured on a family vacation that involved a gentle ride on a little boat. The ride stopped.

"I froze up. We were in this dark cave area," he says. "It wasn't anything extreme, but I felt confined and it really shot my anxiety up."

People keep telling them how lucky they were to survive.

"A lot of people think it was just a bumpy landing, because that's how it came out in the news, and that it was not a big deal and that it hasn't really impacted people. But in the long run, it has impacted a lot of people," Jennifer says.

Before the crash, the couple split chores and work down the middle. Now, there are times when she can only handle five per cent of the family workload.

"She no longer is the person she used to be. She was always very energetic, a go-getter, always doing things for family and for others," her husband says. "That has a huge impact on our children, too. Someone who was so involved in their lives now can't be involved in the way she used to be."

Her youngest at times says to her, "Mommy, I don't remember what you were like before the accident."

Class-action lawsuit

Air Canada sent them and the other passengers a few thousand dollars right after the crash. The Lightfoots say the airline offered them a chance to negotiate with its insurance adjusters, but that would be a final deal. They joined a class-action lawsuit instead.

Air Canada hasn't been in touch with them since 2015. The company said it couldn't comment on the case while the class-action lawsuit is active.

Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press

Ray Wagner, the lawyer leading the class-action, says his firm could not reach a settlement, so is pursuing litigation. The case is inching along and due back in court June 9. But with courts largely shut down during the COVID-19 outbreak, that could easily be pushed back.

Wagner's firm represents 131 of the 133 passengers on AC Flight 624. He says several parties bear responsibility for the accident: Air Canada, Airbus, Nav Canada, the Halifax International Airport Authority, and Transport Canada. He holds out hope for an out-of-court settlement, but either way it could be later this year or 2021 before it's resolved.

"How they split it up, we really don't care, so long as they pay the claims," he says. "Everybody suffered a harm. It's just the degree that has to be assessed in each individual case."

Trevor admits he struggled at times to help others as his own situation deteriorated.

"It's my faith that has helped me to maintain a balance, the best I can. My faith and a sense of hope that at some point, all this will be rectified so we can begin to live and function a bit more normally. I don't think our lives will ever be the same."

Things started looking up in February, when friends helped them pay for a trip to see a specialist at Calgary's Foothills Hospital. The flight was uneventful.

"Flying will never be the same. It's terrifying. It brings back awful memories and you can't help but think, What if? That sense of fear will always be there," Jennifer says.

COVID-19 outbreak delays plans

But she learned more about her condition and got a reference to a specialist in Halifax. In early March, the Lightfoots were optimistic. It looked like she might get surgery for her shoulder, which is currently in a splint as it regularly dislocates. Then COVID-19 shut everything down.

"I haven't seen the specialist here in Halifax yet, and it doesn't look like I will for a little while," she says with a rueful laugh. "I feel like we've been practising this for a while, this social isolation."

Her husband says the global shutdown makes it seem like everyone is now caught in the same plight as they are.

"Every so often throughout history, times come along that cause all of humanity to pause, take stock, and consider what is most important to us," he says. "Jenn has been in that kind of state for the last five years. It's a difficult time and place to be in."

They hope after the pandemic, she will get shoulder surgery and see the specialist. "At this point, a reduction in everything would be wonderful. I don't know that there is a cure," she says.