Pilot error confirmed as cause of Melbourne accident

Australian transport officials confirm that pilot error was responsible for the near crash of an Emirates Airline passenger jet in Melbourne.

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DUBAI // Australian transport officials yesterday confirmed that pilot error was responsible for the near crash of an Emirates Airline passenger jet in Melbourne in March and said they had taken measures to prevent any similar mistakes. Emirates flight EK407 to Dubai International Airport made an emergency landing in Melbourne shortly after take-off on March 20 when the plane's tail scraped the ground. In a preliminary report on April 30, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau determined that the flight crew had "inadvertently" underestimated the weight of the aircraft during pre-flight preparations. The actuall take-off weight of 362.9 tonnes had been mistakenly recorded as 262.9 tonnes, leading to a miscalculation of the speed and engine thrust required to lift the jet.

In following up with a 50-page "interim report" yesterday, the bureau confirmed its previous finding and said it had instituted "procedural, training and technical initiatives" to reduce the risk of recurrence. It said the plane's manufacturer, Airbus, was redesigning software to check the consistency of flight data that crew enter into aircraft computers. Significantly, the report said the investigation had found "a number of similar take-off performance-related incidents and accidents around the world" and that they would be investigated further.

The crew made an emergency landing minutes after take-off when the aircraft, an Airbus A340-541 carrying 271 people, struggled to gain sufficient altitude. It had struck the runway and objects on the ground during its ascent. The seriousness of the episode was not immediately apparent, with news reports simply noting an emergency landing. Soon after the investigation had begun, however, it became clear that the plane had narrowly averted a crash.

The faulty weight figures, programmed by the first officer, were cross-checked by the captain before take-off, the report said. But the error was not recognised by the flight crew until it was preparing to make the emergency landing. Emirates, based in Dubai, said in a statement released yesterday that it accepted the content of the report. The airline also said it had introduced measures to address safety, including training, additional awareness briefings and distraction-management courses. It had also established "working groups to examine aircraft procedures" across the fleet and a second, independent system to calculate the take-off performance by the flight crew. Moreover, it had entered into discussions with Airbus, "to improve the laptop-based electronic flight bag user interface" used by the flight crew.

In an interview with the Melbourne Herald Sun in July, the 42-year-old pilot, quoted anonymously, described the take-off as a miracle. "I still don't know how we got it off the ground," he said. "I thought we were going to die; it was that close." The pilot, a European and 22-year veteran, has since left the airline. The pilot also claimed he had been suffering from exhaustion. According to the ATSB report, he and the first officer had arrived in Melbourne from Dubai at 6.13am the day before the accident. Had he completed the flight to Dubai, about a 14-hour journey, Emirates said, he "would have been within the 100-hour limit for the 28-day period".

"The ATSB's investigation to date is consistent with Emirates' investigation, which shows that the operating crew had a very adequate opportunity for layover rest, of over 38 hours, prior to the flight," the airline said. The ATSB said the investigation would continue. hnaylor@thenational.ae