Passengers of Flight 236, a near-disastrous airplane incident in 2001, have helped researchers better understand the relationship between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and memory. Published in August in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, the study recruited and analyzed the victims of the Air Transat incident, pinpointing a potential risk factor that may determine which individuals are more likely to develop PTSD.

The 2001 Air Transat Incident

Flight 236 from Toronto, Canada to Lisbon, Portugal took off with an incorrect hydraulic pump installed in the engine, causing chafing of the fuel line and the hydraulic line. Eventually, the right fuel line ruptured, resulting in the loss of eight tons of airplane fuel. The right engine failed, and shortly after, the left engine followed. Once the cabin depressurized and the light systems were lost, crew members were forced to prepare the passengers for a rough, ocean landing. Their luck turned, however, when pilots discovered a small military base where they were able to avoid the impact and make a safe but rocky landing, and, thankfully, despite some injuries, the event resulted in zero deaths.

Although the passengers of Flight 236 were able to avoid disaster, they didn't walk away completely unharmed—at least not emotionally."This wasn't just a close call where your life flashes before your eyes in a split second and then everything is okay," said Dr. Margaret McKinnon, Flight 236 survivor and clinician-scientist at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton. McKinnon, who is also a lead author of this study, describes the incident as a "your worst nightmare."

Observing the Memories of People with PTSD

Researchers recruited 15 passengers from Flight 236—along with McKinnon herself—to test the quality and accuracy of the participants' memory of the incident. These results were then compared against memories of two other events, a neutral event from the same time period and another traumatic event.

Based on these comparisons, the study found that the passengers showed "tremendously vivid memories" of the near-disaster. Although this discovery didn't shock the researchers, they found the pattern to be significant for multiple reasons. For one, it goes against other studies of PTSD and recollection, which often find memory of traumatic events to be diluted. More poignantly, they discovered that the participants who developed PTSD were more likely to recall a significant amount of "details external to the main event." This means that they remembered details that weren't part of the original incident, such as a headline in an editorial or statistics that were discovered after the event.

PTSD and External Details

Interestingly, this ability to recall external details in people with PTSD was discovered across all the events tested, not just the traumatic event of which they were involved. This shows that how a person remembers something, and not just the memory of the event itself, plays a potential role in the development of PTSD.

"What our findings show is that it is not what happened but to whom it happened that may determine subsequent onset of PTSD," adds Dr. Brian Levine, senior author and senior scientist at Baycrest's Roman Research Institute and the University of Toronto, Canada. Looking forward, researchers are set to conduct a second part of the study, where they plan to utilize brain scans of the flight passengers to get a better look at the mechanisms involved with memory processing.

Date of original publication:
Updated on: November 10, 2015


Levine, Brian. McKinnon, Magaret. Palombo, Daniella. Passengers on 2001 Air Transat Flight Provide Insights About Post-Traumatic Stress Vulnerability. Clinical Psychological Science, August 2014. DOI: