Aviation has a way of throwing up unexpected challenges. This certainly was the case this week for the pilots of the Boeing 777-300 that crashed during an emergency landing in Dubai.
Thankfully, all 300 on board were safely evacuated, although one firefighter was killed when the plane burst into flames.
Let us examine the possibilities of why the event occurred to one of the safest airlines in the busiest international airport. Emirates pilots are trained to a high level, practising emergency/abnormal procedures every six months in simulators. The B777 aircraft are probably the safest flying. First, Dubai airport on the Gulf coast: huge, modern and in 15 years of flying out of Dubai I never once encountered windshear (which was a suggested reason for the aborted landing). There is no mountainous terrain nearby and thunderstorms are exceedingly rare. What I have encountered is gusty crosswinds around the landing crosswind limit of 35 knots.
Whatever reason the pilot decided to abort the landing it was the correct decision. However, now come certain factors that can catch out an unwary pilot.
When the B777-300 was introduced several years after the B777-200 it brought new problems because of its extreme length, about 74m, making it one of the longest aircraft. As a pilot, it is easy to forget you have 70m of hardware behind you. New takeoff procedures were introduced with a slower rotation rate on takeoff and stopping at a deck angle of 12 degrees as against 15 degrees for the B777-200. Tail strikes have occurred on takeoff by various airlines but that incidence is now rare.
Go-arounds — aborted landings — from a very low altitude are not common. Once on approach to land in London Heathrow airport following an Air Canada A340, the tower instructed me to expect a late landing clearance, so I left the autopilot of the B777-300 engaged. Suddenly a Canadian voice said, “Missed it, we’ll take the next one” (missed the high-speed runway exit taxiway). Tower said, “Emirates go round”, so click TOGA switch on the thrust levers and from a wheel height of 50 feet above the runway the aircraft gracefully performed its automatic go-around. Co-pilot called “positive climb” and I called for “gear up”. Job done — but that Canadian pilot cost Emirates three tonnes of extra fuel, burned as we rejoined the queue for landing.
When you have about 250 tonnes of aircraft descending on approach at 800 feet a minute, there is a lot of momentum, and height loss will occur after the decision to go-around. The aircraft rotates about its centre of gravity, which means initially, as the pilots are rapidly ascending, the tail is rapidly descending. I suggest the pilots felt they were climbing clear of the runway and retracted the gear just as the tail struck the runway, causing the aircraft to crunch down on the runway.
This is only speculation but the gear was retracted and the pilots were performing a go-around.
I am sure now all operators of B777-300 will introduce extra go-around training for their pilots during their recurrent six-monthly simulator training. It’s a lesson for all pilots, really — just when you think everything is hunky-dory the Goddess of Gravity is just waiting to smite you.
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