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.
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.
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.