First and foremost, let me say that safety is the core of aviation. Flying is much safer than driving, or virtually any other means of transport. That’s not hyperbole, but data based fact.

I worry much more in cars than on planes and statistically, you should too. Second, fear and pandemonium in the media is not a very healthy thing, however many clicks and subsequent dollars, it may bring. That’s certainly not the goal here.

With that said, there are times where human error can be absolutely terrifying, and even though flying is about as safe a mode of transport as there is — occasionally there are near misses which need reconciliation.

Major attention to these issues tends to create a more proportionate response in safety measures, which is good for everyone who flies. Airlines, however, don’t like the attention, for obvious reasons. Paperwork is typically minimal and “mum’s the word”, increasing deniability chances when these non-fatal events occur.

According to unconfirmed reports, on December 20th, an Emirates Boeing 777 bound for Washington DC nearly impacted the ground after take off from Dubai (DXB), after flight crew failed to properly set a climb, which resulted in the flight director, a system similar to autopilot, nearly plunging the aircraft into the ground after take off.

Here’s what’s believed to be true of this event, based on data from FlightRadar24 and sources close to the incident. Since this flight was bound for Washington DC, there will be an FAA record, too.

Emirates “Near Miss” On Take Off?

Emirates flight 231 from Dubai (DXB) to Washington DC (IAD) appears to have experienced a potentially significant anomaly during take off from Dubai on the 20th of December, according to data from FR24.

According to unconfirmed reports close to the event; and seemingly corroborated by data from FlightRadar24 and other resources, the flight crew failed to correct the take off climb altitude, which was set to 00000 feet instead of 4,000 feet.

This allegedly caused the Boeing 777 flight director — to pitch the aircraft back toward the ground during a critical phase of flight. The plane got as low as 175 feet, according to FlightRadar24 data.

The result was reportedly a plane which reached 262 KTS (circa 301 MPH) of speed at an altitude of just 175 feet, over the city point DIERA, which is by no means “close” to the airport, in take off terms.

A plane should easily be in the thousands of feet of altitude by then.

The flight crew are alleged to have followed the flight director until it became clear that something was incredibly wrong, as the plane headed directly toward the ground. The system should have been set for 4,000 feet for the take off climb, but was set to 00000 and apparently not corrected.

Note: the flight took off on the 20th of December, local time, which differs from UTC.

Overspeed: A Cause For Caution

Planes don’t usually hit those speeds with the gear or flaps down, or at low altitude. When these potentially damaging incidents happen, they’re known as “overspeed” issues.

If the event in question did indeed occur, on the “overspeed” basis alone, the plane likely should’ve returned to Dubai for structural checks. High speeds experienced at low altitude, with flaps and gear down could’ve caused damage which can prove critical during flight.

Instead, the plane carried on for circa 14 hours.

In the end, worries regarding overspeed structural damage lead to an inspection in Washington, which created a delay greater than 3 hours of the return flight. Overspeed of an aircraft can result in cracks, structural failures or issues with systems which are critical to flight.

After inspection, it was confirmed that no serious structural or systems damage occurred to the aircraft during this take off event, and the flight operated “home” from Washington to Dubai without incident.

But, questions remain about whether it should’ve continued its outbound journey to Washington DC, given the potential for damage experienced during what was likely an overspeed on takeoff, and the potentially serious error. Of course, if this happened…

A Fortunate Outcome

According to sources, the 4 flight crew who operated the “near miss” flight have all been let go by Emirates as a result of the potentially devastating incident and further decision to carry on, despite the potential for overspeed damage to either the flaps or landing gear as a result of the error.

No one was hurt on the EK231 flight in question, and on the Boeing 777’s return journey from Washington Dulles to Dubai, only a 3 hr 15 min delay was experienced, as a result of the overspeed inspection.

Initial fingers point to crew “recency”, which is a continuous problem for airlines in the “stop, start” nature of the pandemic. Restrictions are added, demand dips. Restrictions are dropped, demand soars, and airlines can’t cope with staffing.

That’s what allegedly happened, but an inexplicable series of events where a flight crew saw a takeoff altitude of 0,000 feet on the flight director and then failed to correct it to 4,000 feet is incredibly alarming for an airline with a largely impressive safety record.

No Emirates flights have suffered a fatal passenger crash, to date.

Emirates notice to flight crews, after the alleged incident.

The incident was so serious, Emirates reportedly sent out a NOTAM (a notice) to crews reminding them that even if the previous crew left an anomaly altitude of 0,000, that’s certainly not what was intended for take off. It’s a worrying error, to say the least.

Let’s hope airlines take note and work diligently to retrain flight crews properly as they enter back into service, after a very long and emotional time off of work. The last thing the travel recovery needs is an avoidable disaster.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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31 Comments

  1. I fly the 777 and after parking at the gate we normally set the expected altitude for the next departure in the MCP altitude window. Or just leave it as is which will be the missed approach altitude on the inbound approach.
    Nor sure why anyone would bother setting all zeroes in there………..

    1. I fly 777’s too but it doesn’t matter what type you’re flying. Setting zero’s in the ALT window is sometimes done to remind the next crew to set the correct altitude for departure.

      To keep GA alt. or (expected-) departure altitude in the window can be problematic also.

  2. Ek’s safety record hasn’t been the best lately. Tired crews and poor company culture. All 4 pilots fired. Obviously the problem isn’t solved… Up to the next incident or accident at EK, or Will Qatar be next who knows, equally bad safety in both. Won’t see me on any of their flights, rather eat a crappy meal in BA than dying on EK!

    1. Eliza can you please tell us more about what it was like as a passenger on flight EK231? Thankfully you are safe! Did you see if all 4 pilots were in the cockpit, or if 2 were sitting in the cabin? What did the pilots announce after their error? If you want to tell us more, you can go to: Kelsey74gear forum. Kelsey is a 747 pilot who started this forum + also does aviation U-Tube videos. It would be great if you started a discussion about your flight, as many people on the forum are wondering what happened. Many pilots + many non-pilots are on this aviation forum! Thank you. I was a flight attendant + am curious how professional pilots could forget to set the altimeter prior to take-off. I wonder if they were tired or distracted.

  3. It is incredible that a crew does not check the initial altitude of the flight that one is going to make. It is the responsibility of the crew in command which altitude to select in the altitude window. It doesn’t matter if the previous crew selected something else. It is inconceivable that the crew in command does not set the initial altitude approved by ATC

  4. A’flight director’ is not the autopilot. It’s an indicator suggesting actions for hand flying. So it does not ‘push’ the aircraft down as stated here. Autopilot cannot be engaged until 200 feet.

    AVHerald contradicts the story here that it took off then was pushed down, stating it was a long takeoff roll that put it past the threshold. Which explains why the flightradar data shows no decline in altitude, just a delay in gaining altitude.

    Perhaps the pilots were confused by the flight director, leading to hesitation on the takeoff roll and abnormally low pitch climb for about 10 seconds

    1. Look, basically… something along these lines happened. Because official reports are scarce, since it was hoped this would never come out, there will be a grey area. I’ve heard from people peripherally involved that the AVHerald doesn’t have it 100% right, and I might not either. It’s something along the lines of all of this. That’s as much as we’ll know for a while, until FAA or counterparts in UAE publish reports.

      1. There’s nothing unconfirmed about a flight director being unable to send a plane plunging. It’s not the capability of a flight director, which is simply a visual aid for flight crew. Your writeup confuses it with autopilot which manipulates flight controls. Those are facts about the aircraft, not unique the incident.

  5. 1.Initial climb on rotation to 15 pitch saved the flight. The FD did not follow pitch as reqd.
    2. Autopilot comes on at 200 also contributed to safety.
    3. Chk list not followed by Pilots is the reason.
    4. Our airline Engineers were instructed to set TA on altimeter when clearing the plane.

  6. I wonder, How come no one out of four pilots were monitoring the VSI and altimeter winding down on the PFD,
    This is perhaps a case of too much automation, and dependence only on FD,
    Fatigue could be another factor
    Providence has saved them

  7. I experienced something similar on the B-777 years ago while taking off from SFO. MCP settings were correctly set. But when I hit the TOGA switches for takeoff, the vertical mode went to ALT instead of TO/GA. The FD pitch bar dropped to below the horizon. The aircraft was already rolling and after a quick scan to check that there were no other faults, I reverted to basic flying and continued the takeoff. The FMAs eventually reverted to normal during the climb out and the rest of the flight was uneventful. A post flight investigation conducted by Boeing found an anomaly in the software.

  8. This MUST surely be a BIG wake up call to ALL Pilots & First Officers no matter who they are under contract to? We all of us should be so thankful that this matter did not end up with a loss of life and so much more !!!!

  9. So, if they are departing from runway 30R the other end of the runway would be 12L. If you look at the missed approach guidance on a Jeppsen chart for Dubai DXB you will see climb to 4000 feet on missed approach to 30R. Climb straight ahead to 3000 feet on missed approach to runway 12L. Did anyone look at the ADS-B track to verify the end of the runway?

  10. I usually prefer to fly Emirates. But this incident has me wondering whether to continue with the same airline.
    There is absolutely no excuse for such grave negligence.

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