TravelRisk Emirates Boeing 777 accelerating for take off without Air Traffic Control Clearance Instructed to Reject Takeoff

Another incident at Emirates in Dubai, this time a Boeing 777 passenger flight bound for India was accelerating for take off at Dubai – without air traffic control clearance – meanwhile another Emirates jet was crossing runway at the same time.

Incident: Emirates B773 at Dubai on Jan 9th 2022, rejected takeoff without clearance due to crossing aircraft

An Emirates Boeing 777-300, registration A6-EQA performing flight EK-524 from Dubai (United Arab Emirates) to Hyderabad (India), was accelerating for takeoff from Dubai’s runway 30R when the crew was instructed to reject takeoff at high speed (above 100 knots over ground) due to a crossing aircraft. The aircraft slowed safely and vacated the runway via taxiway N4 behind the aircraft, that had crossed the runway.


An Emirates Boeing 777-300, registration A6-EBY performing flight EK-568 from Dubai (United Arab Emirates) to Bangalore (India), was taxiing for departure and was cleared to cross runway 30R from taxiway M5A to N4 and was entering the runway just when EK-524 began the takeoff roll.

According to information The Aviation Herald received from two independent sources, EK-524 began their takeoff roll without ATC clearance. Tower subsequently instructed EK-524 to stop. According to information EK-524 may have reached 130 KIAS when they rejected takeoff. According to ADS-B data transmitted by the aircraft’s transponder EK-524 had reached 100 knots over ground about 790 meters/2600 feet down the runway and about 1700 meters/5700 feet short of taxiway N4.

EK-568 continued taxi and departed normally. EK-524 taxied back the holding point of runway 30R and departed about 30 minutes after the rejected takeoff.

On Jan 13th 2022 the airline reported, that EK-524 was instructed by tower to abort takeoff on Jan 9th 2022, the crew rejected takeoff successfully. There was no damage to the aircraft and there were no injuries. An internal investigation has been initiated, UAE’s GCAA also opened an investigation.

Reported by The Aviation Herald on 13 January 2022.

Emirates Pilots forget to set the Flight Director causing TravelRisk

Aviation is incredibly safe, and for every disaster there are many catastrophes that are narrowly avoided. It would appear that an Emirates Boeing 777 departing Dubai about a week ago nearly had a major incident after takeoff. Let me share what I’ve been able to piece together so far about this incident.

What happened to this Emirates plane on takeoff?

The flight in question is Emirates EK231 from Dubai (DXB) to Washington Dulles (IAD), which was scheduled to depart at 2:25AM on December 20, 2021. The flight was operated by one of Emirates’ newest Boeing 777-300ERs, with the registration code A6-EQI.

Based on what I’ve been told and have been able to piece together:

  • Before departure, the pilots forgot to set the flight director to an altitude of 4,000 feet, but rather left it at an altitude of zero feet (which the previous crew had presumably set on approach to Dubai)
  • After takeoff, the plane’s nose pitched down, to the point that the plane was at 175 feet and flying at 262 knots (this is supported by actual flight data, which you can find below); as a point of comparison, under normal circumstances the plane would be flying at well under 200 knots at that altitude
  • While I haven’t been able to figure out more details about this, I’m told that the plane sustained damage, yet the pilots made the decision to continue to Washington (I’m still working on figuring out what kind of damage we’re talking about, as the plane operated the return flight later that day)
  • I’ve been told that all four pilots have been fired, and that the US Federal Aviation Administration is now investigating this incident, given that the flight was US-bound (note that I haven’t gotten official confirmation of either of these, though at a minimum I’d assume the pilots are suspended pending an investigation)

For those curious, below is some data from Flightradar24 for the flight in question vs. a more “standard” flight on the same route. You’ll want to look at the right two columns, with the left column being the altitude, and the right column being the speed.

Here’s the data for the flight in question:

Then here’s the data for the same flight several days earlier:

As you can tell, that data is vastly different. This sounds concerning — a Boeing 777 (presumably) full of passengers and fuel was descending right after takeoff, to the point that it was lower than many high rises in Dubai, and flying at a very fast pace.

This incident happened on an Emirates Boeing 777

Emirates has sent a memo to pilots

While Emirates hasn’t yet officially commented on this incident, the airline did send out the following alert to pilots today, essentially referencing the incident:

CREWS ARE REMINDED THAT THERE ARE NO FCOM NORMAL PROCEDURE REQUIREMENTS TO CHANGE THE MCP AFTER LANDING OR SHUTDOWN. THERE HAVE BEEN TIMES WHEN THE MCP “ALTITUDE WINDOW” HAS BEEN SET TO THE AIRPORT ELEVATION WHICH MAY CAUSE ISSUES ON THE SUBSEQUENT DEPARTURE. CREWS SHALL NOT SET AIRPORT ELEVATION ON THE MCP AFTER LANDING OR SHUT DOWN.

I wonder what it was like on the plane

I’d be curious to hear from a passenger onboard, because I wonder if passengers had any clue what was going on:

  • On the one hand, perhaps passengers didn’t really know what was going on, since it was dark outside, and most people aren’t really avgeeks and paying attention to every aircraft movement
  • On the other hand, perhaps passengers totally knew what was going on, given that the plane was barely climbing after takeoff, but rather just kept flying faster and faster

While I feel safe flying with Emirates, in general I’m not surprised to see things like this happen once in a while:

  • Emirates pilots deal with a lot of fatigue, given that they often operate ultra long haul flights departing in the middle of the night; no matter how hard you try, this has to take a toll on you
  • In general Emirates hires 777 pilots with less experience than you’d find at some other airlines; that’s largely because it’s Emirates’ smallest plane, and Emirates isn’t going to consistently have a couple of people with 10,000+ flights hours at the controls (as you’d find on American and United, for example)
  • Then there’s coronavirus, which in general has caused a lot of pilots to become a bit rusty, since many have only recently been brought to work after being furloughed
I wonder what this incident was like for passengers

Bottom line

While I’m sure more information will emerge soon, it’s my understanding that an Emirates Boeing 777 had a pretty frightening departure out of Dubai about a week ago. Specifically, the altitude for after takeoff was set to ground level rather than 4,000 feet, and as a result the plane didn’t climb very high, but rather just sped up. The plane ended up flying at 261 knots just 175 feet over the ground, which must have been frightening for those on the ground and in the air.

Since the FAA is allegedly investigating the incident, hopefully we end up learning more. If anyone has more details on the incident, please chime in!

Reported by OneMileAtATime by Ben Schlappig on 28 December 2021.

Rattlesnakes and scorpions are a potential hazard and travelrisk

Snake, rattle and roll: Where A380s share accommodation with snakes and scorpions

It’s rattlesnake season in the Californian Mojave desert and Qantas engineers based at the airline’s Los Angeles hanger have added a new pre-inspection procedure to avoid the wrath of startled rattlesnakes when they carry out weekly maintenance on Qantas’ parked fleet of A380 aircraft.

The engineers are tasked with maintaining the A380s that are currently parked in deep storage, with the fleet expected to return to service when international travel demand gets back to pre-COVID levels – which could still be two years away.

While engineers are well versed in how to protect the aircraft from birds and insects nesting in crevices in the fuselage, in Victorville California, there is a different set of potential hazards the engineers need to be on the lookout for.

The desert-based airfield is a temporary home to aircraft from all around the world, with airlines from around the world storing their jets until commercial travel returns to pre COVID-19 levels.

While the dry heat and low humidity of the California desert makes it the ideal storage facility for aircraft, it is also the ideal environment for the highly venomous Mojave rattlesnakes and scorpions, both which are prone to setting up camp around the wheel wells and tyres of slumbering aircraft.

Qantas Manager for Engineering in Los Angeles, Tim Heywood, said having a team of engineers driving the two hours from LA to Victorville for regular inspections is a vital part of keeping the aircraft in top condition during their downtime. Encounters of the slithering and rattling kind are all part of the job.

“The area is well known for its feisty ‘rattlers’ who love to curl up around the warm rubber tyres and in the aircraft wheels and brakes. Every aircraft has its own designated “wheel whacker” (a repurposed broom handle) as part of the engineering kit, complete with each aircraft’s registration written on it.

“The first thing we do before we unwrap and start any ground inspections of the landing gear in particular is to walk around the aircraft stomping our feet and tapping the wheels with a wheel whacker to wake up and scare off the snakes. That’s about making sure no harm comes to our engineers or the snakes.

“Only then do we carefully approach each wheel and unwrap them before performing our pressure checks and visual inspections.

“We’ve encountered a few rattle snakes and also some scorpions, but the wheel whacker does its job and they scuttle off. It’s a unique part of looking after these aircraft while they’re in storage and it’s another sign of how strange the past year has been. These A380s would rarely spend more than a day on the ground when they were in service.”

Their work involves everything from covering the interior seats with plastic sheeting to applying protective film to the top of the rudder and on all of the cabin windows. The wheels, tyres and landing gear legs are wrapped in protective film and all inlets and orifices on the fuselage are plugged to avoid insects, birds and even bats making themselves at home.

While in hibernation, the aircraft require regular monitoring, so during their staycation in California, engineers carry out weekly, fortnightly and monthly inspections that include draining fuel tanks of water caused by condensation, rotating the wheels to avoid flat spots, check the tyre pressures, inspect the fuselage and wings for animal nests and make sure that they are still tightly wrapped up during their sleep.

Any snake that chose to ignore the wheel whacker this week would have gotten an even bigger shock. One of the A380s (VH-OQC) was woken up and took to the skies for the first time in 290 days this week, flying from Victorville to Los Angeles to undergo a gear swing procedure at Qantas’ LAX hangar. The 290 tonne aircraft was jacked up and its landing gear swung up and down

“Aircraft like these are highly technical and you can’t just land it at the storage facility, park it and walk away.  It’s really important that even when in deep storage, the aircraft are maintained to the Qantas standard.”

The engineers said watching it thunder down the runway and take off was a great moment.

“It was terrific to see the A380 in full flight once again, some of these aircraft have brand new interiors still with the plastic on the seats so we will are proud to keep them in top notch condition until the time comes for them to fly again.  We can hang up our wheel whackers at that point.”

Reported by QANTAS on 3 June 2021.

US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) holds Boeing accountable with penalties and corrective production actions

The United States Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration announced that the Boeing Company will pay at least $17 million in penalties and undertake multiple corrective actions with its production under a settlement agreement (PDF) with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA found that the Chicago-based manufacturer installed equipment on 759 Boeing 737 MAX and NG aircraft containing sensors that were not approved for that equipment; submitted approximately 178 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft for airworthiness certification when the aircraft potentially had nonconforming slat tracks installed; and improperly marked those slat tracks.

“Keeping the flying public safe is our primary responsibility. That is not negotiable, and the FAA will hold Boeing and the aviation industry accountable to keep our skies safe,” said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson.

Boeing will pay the $17 million penalty within 30 days after signing the agreement. If Boeing does not complete certain corrective actions within specific timeframes, the FAA will levy up to $10.1 million in additional penalties. The corrective actions include but are not limited to:

    • Strengthening procedures to ensure that it does not install on aircraft any parts that fail to conform to their approved design.
    • Performing Safety Risk Management analyses to determine whether its supply-chain oversight processes are appropriate and whether the company is ready to safely increase the Boeing 737 production rate.
    • Revising its production procedures to enable the FAA to observe production rate readiness assessments, the data on which the company bases the assessments, and the results of the assessments.
    • Taking steps to reduce the chance that it presents to the FAA aircraft with nonconforming parts for airworthiness certification or a Certificate of Export.
    • Enhancing processes to improve its oversight of parts suppliers.

The FAA will continue its oversight of Boeing’s engineering and production activities and is actively implementing oversight provisions from the 2020 Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act.

FAA statement issued on 27 May 2021.

Reported on 27 May 2021 by Air Transport News.

Singapore Airlines captain error stopped Boeing 777 climbing at 500 feet – TravelRisk

2 September 2019 incident

Singaporean Transport Safety Investigation Bureau Investigators noted that the crew had been facing several individual pressures prior to the departure and highlighted that:

    • The Singapore Airlines captain inadvertently miskeyed, typing ‘500’ rather than ‘500A’, which neither crew member noticed.
    • This error stopped the Boeing 777 aircraft climb at 500ft.
    • The pilot cross-checking process failed.
    • Time pressure resulted in the first officer’s not carrying out a habitual scan of the entries.
    • The captain called for autopilot engagement at 360ft – an early selection because he wanted to reduce workload
    • The captain “did not realise that the aircraft had stopped climbing”, says the inquiry, and had called for flap retraction believing the 777 had passed 1,000ft. Investigators state that the crew “did not verify” altitude information from the instrument displays.

SIA 777 stopped climb at 500ft after crew’s waypoint entry error

Pilots of a Singapore Airlines Boeing 777-300ER inadvertently entered an incorrect waypoint altitude constraint prior to departure, resulting in several alerts from the ground-proximity warning system as the aircraft climbed out of Shanghai Pudong.

The take-off runway assigned had been changed from 34L to 35R which meant the aircraft’s standard departure route switched from HSN 22X to HSN 12X.

This required updating the flight-management computer with the new departure route. The first waypoint on this route, identified as PD062, did not have any speed or altitude crossing constraint which meant the field on the computer’s route display was blank.

Although this was not abnormal, the captain “preferred to have the speed constraint explicitly displayed”, says the Singaporean Transport Safety Investigation Bureau, in its inquiry into the 2 September 2019 incident.

He decided to enter the speed constraint of 250kt, as shown on the departure charts. The 777’s flight-management computer required speed constraints to have a corresponding altitude constraint, so the captain chose to enter ‘500A’ – meaning that the PD062 waypoint should be crossed at 500ft or above.

But the captain inadvertently miskeyed, typing ‘500’ rather than ‘500A’, which neither crew member noticed. This error meant the aircraft’s autopilot would limit the aircraft to 500ft ahead of the waypoint crossing.

“The first officer observed the [captain’s] inputs, as part of the cross-checking process, and accepted the inputs as correct,” the inquiry says, adding that “time pressure” resulted in the first officer’s not carrying out a habitual scan of the entries.

As the aircraft took off from runway 35R, in darkness, the captain called for autopilot engagement at 360ft – an early selection because he wanted to reduce workload, given the need for the crew to spend time converting Chinese metric altitude clearances to feet.

SIA 777 9V-SWD-c-Martin Oertle Creative Commons

Source: Martin Oertle/Creative Commons

Pilots on the 777 (9V-SWD) engaged the autopilot just after lift-off

But the autopilot selection meant the aircraft initially climbed to 750ft before descending to 500ft in compliance with the altitude constraint entered for the PD062 waypoint.

The captain “did not realise that the aircraft had stopped climbing”, says the inquiry, and had called for flap retraction believing the 777 had passed 1,000ft. Investigators state that the crew “did not verify” altitude information from the instrument displays.

As the flaps started retracting, the enhanced ground-proximity warning system activated and issued an unexpected ‘don’t sink’ alert, which startled the pilots. The captain nevertheless chose to complete the flap retraction, suggesting to the first officer that the alert might have been due to a pitch reduction resulting from a tailwind.

Nine seconds after the initial alert, the crew received a second ‘don’t sink’ warning, and a third some 9s after that.

“The flight crew then realised that the aircraft had levelled off and they needed to reinitiate a climb,” says the inquiry.

While the captain selected ‘flight level change’ mode in response, he then reverted to ‘vertical navigation’ mode. Flight-data recorder information showed this made no difference to the 777’s altitude, and the aircraft remained at 480-500ft.

Another ‘don’t sink’ caution was triggered, followed shortly afterwards by a ‘pull up’ warning, prompting the captain to disengage the autopilot, pitch the aircraft nose-up and advance the thrust levers.

The aircraft climbed to 1,780ft but, after the captain called for the autopilot to be re-engaged, started descending again towards the 500ft constraint altitude.

At this point the first officer noticed the erroneous constraint entry for the waypoint, and understood the aircraft’s behaviour, informing the captain that the entry needed to be cancelled. Once the entry was deleted, the aircraft was able to climb without further problems and the jet proceeded to Singapore.

“This occurrence is an apt reminder of the guidance given in the flight crew training manual that, when automation does not perform as expected, the flight crew should reduce the level of auto-flight and identify and resolve the condition,” says the inquiry.

“The original level of auto-flight should only be resumed after they have regained proper control of the flight path and performance level.”

Investigators noted that the crew had been facing several individual pressures prior to the departure, including weather concerns, minimum equipment list considerations, and problems downloading route information as a result of a difficult controller-pilot datalink connection.

Reported by Flightglobal on 21 April 2021.

New TravelRisk – electrical issues with 737 MAX

  • Southwest is removing 30 aircraft from service.
  • American is pulling 17 of its 41-strong fleet.
  • United has grounded 16 planes.
  • A change in Boeing’s 737 MAX manufacturing process that was insufficiently vetted caused an electrical system problem.
  • In this change, fasteners were used to hold a backup electrical power unit in place, rather than rivets. Fasteners did not provide a complete electrical grounding path to the unit.

What’s at stake with new 737 MAX electrical issues

After the events of the past few years it’s no surprise that when the 737 MAX has an issue, it receives a lot of coverage. And the latest 737 MAX headlines concerning potential electrical problems are no doubt a big headache for Boeing and its operators alike. It’s bad publicity at the worst possible time for the 737 MAX, when everyone involved will have been hoping for a smooth and quiet reintroduction to service. But it also raises new questions and concerns, on top of many already existing ones, about Boeing’s manufacturing processes and corporate culture. So just what is going on here, and what’s at stake?

To be clear, this appears completely unrelated to the issues that caused two fatal crashes of the type prior to its worldwide grounding. So just how serious are these new electrical problems?

Boeing 737 MAX production manufacturing electrical issues

First: what happened exactly?

Boeing has said this is a “potential” issue that affects a certain number of 737 MAX, but not all of them. Accordingly we’ve seen many of the major operators in the US pull select planes from their fleets. Southwest is removing 30 aircraft from service. American is pulling 17 of its 41-strong fleet. And United has grounded 16 planes.

The Seattle Times published an in-depth piece on what the actual issue is last week. According to that article, a “A minor change in Boeing’s 737 MAX manufacturing process that was insufficiently vetted caused an electrical system problem.” It seems that in this change, fasteners were used to hold a backup electrical power unit in place, rather than rivets. Boeing has said that it discovered the issue while building a new MAX and that, according to the Seattle Times article, the fasteners “did not provide a complete electrical grounding path to the unit.”

Boeing 737 MAX China grounded
The 737 MAX remains grounded in China, where regulators have yet to say when they expect to re-certify the plane.

Is it serious?

While this doesn’t sound like the most serious of issues that could crop up in the manufacturing process, and presumably can be handled without too much complex rework – it’s still troubling. Something like this could be quite dangerous because it has the potential to cause all manner of electrical failures, and that’s not something you want while flying an aircraft.

So Boeing advised all operators that had taken delivery of aircraft with the improperly installed units to inspect and fix them before flying those planes again. And it seems this is not something fundamentally wrong with the 737 MAX systems. All of that is good news. And yet it is troubling, not only for the flying public who may have new concerns about the plane – but also for industry observers.

American Airlines 737 MAX
American has been making good use of its 737 MAX since reintroducing the type. It has had to ground several for inspections because of the latest issues.

The big issue: manufacturing processes

Boeing is under a lot of scrutiny at the moment for failures in its manufacturing processes in recent years that have led to quality control issues with several of its aircraft – most notably the 787 Dreamliner.

Although it’s been less noticed in mainstream press, the 787 has been beset with production issues that have led to a significant slowdown in deliveries in recent months as airframes needed to be checked and in many cases fixed before being delivered to customers. These manufacturing issues may end up costing Boeing billions to fix when all is said and done – to say nothing of the further hit to its reputation.

Boeing did recently begin delivering 787s again. And aside from this issue the 737 MAX has had a relatively smooth rollout with dozens of airlines sending them back into the skies and it being mostly a non-event outside of avgeek circles. Indeed it seems that the expected public mass anxiety about getting back on a 737 MAX was greatly exaggerated, and most people aren’t even noticing that they’re on one.

But the fundamental issues at Boeing remain an ongoing concern, and even as the company fixes aircraft problems as they come up, many are wondering just how deep these problems go, and whether we’ve now seen the end of them. This latest 737 MAX issue only feeds those concerns.

Reported by FlightRadar24 on 14 April 2021.

Travel Risk: 3 TUI Airways flights departed from the UK with inaccurate load sheets

Airline software super-bug: Flight loads miscalculated because women using ‘Miss’ were treated as children

Weight blunder led to wrong thrust used on takeoff, says UK watchdog


A programming error in the software used by UK airline TUI to check-in passengers led to miscalculated flight loads on three flights last July, a potentially serious safety issue.

The error occurred, according to a report [PDF] released on Thursday by the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), because the check-in software treated travelers identified as “Miss” in the passenger list as children, and assigned them a weight of 35 kg (~77 lbs) instead of 69 kg (~152 lbs) for an adult.

The AAIB report attributes the error to cultural differences in how the term Miss is understood.

“The system programming was not carried out in the UK, and in the country where it was performed the title Miss was used for a child, and Ms for an adult female, hence the error,” the report says.

The Register asked TUI where the system programming was done, but the company ignored that question in its response to our inquiry.

“The health and safety of our customers and crew is always our primary concern,” a TUI spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Following this isolated incident, we corrected a fault identified in our IT system. As stated in the report, the safe operation of the flight was not compromised.”

Potentially fatal math

Flight load miscalculations have the potential to affect aircraft handling and to create serious safety issues: the figures are used for figuring out fuel levels, altitude, takeoff thrust, and so on. The 2018 fatal crash of Cubana de Aviación Flight 972, for example, has been attributed to excessive load, as has the 1997 crash of Fine Air Douglas DC-8 cargo flight.

According to the AAIB, the software issue was first spotted on July 10, 2020, when three adult passengers identified as Miss were checked in as children. Airline personnel caught the discrepancy and proceeded to make adjustments manually.

On July 17, the developer(s) working on the check-in application “adapted a piece of software, which changed the title of any adult female from Miss to Ms automatically.”

Alas, the revised code could only convert honorifics for passengers prior to check-in. Bookings made with the title Miss that had already checked in, including those checking in online 24 hours prior to departure, could not be changed.

“On 20 July, 2020, the programmer was making enhancements to the program to improve its performance,” the report says. “This should not have stopped the program from working, but as this was a ‘fix,’ it could not be known for sure. A combination of the [TUI] teams not working over the weekend [to make manual corrections] and the ‘online’ check-in being open early on Monday 20 July, 24 hours ahead of the flight, meant the incorrectly allocated passenger weights were not corrected.”

On 21 July, 2020, three TUI Airways flights departed from the UK with inaccurate load sheets as a result of the software issue, which would not be fixed until July 24, 2020.

The first of these, and the only one detailed in the report, was TUI Airways flight BY-7226, a Boeing 737-800 with the registration G-TAWG. The plane travelled from Birmingham International Airport in the UK to Palma de Mallorca in Spain, carrying 167 passengers and 6 crew.

The 737-800 departed with a takeoff weight that exceeded the load sheet (the projected weight) by 1,244 kg (~2743 lbs) because the load sheet listed 65 children on board, compared to the 29 children expected from the flight plan – which includes the actual weight. The load sheet also varied from the flight plan due to errant baggage weight calculations.

The result of all this was that the plane used less thrust to take off than it should have – 88.3 per cent instead of 88.9 per cent given its actual takeoff weight and environmental conditions. Fortunately, this was “marginally” more than the minimal regulatory requirements – 88.2 per cent – and the flight made it to its destination safely.

It’s suggested this won’t happen again: “An upgrade of the system producing load sheets was carried out to prevent reoccurrence,” the report concludes. ®

Reported by The Register on 8 April 2021.

Travelrisk from Stored Aircraft because of COVID-19? Was Storage a Factor in the Boeing 737 Sriwijaya Flight 182 Crash in Indonesia?

Boeing 737 Sriwijaya Flight 182 Crashed in Indonesia Just After Takeoff on 9 January 2021.

Did the downturn of air travel caused by COVID-19 contribute to this crash?

The Sriwijaya 737 aircraft had been in storage for 9 months in Surabaya and was inspected on 14 December 2020 and since 19 December 2020 operated 132 flights.

Storage may have been a factor in the crash, aircraft must be kept operating otherwise they deteriorate. Mothballed planes pose a safety risk.

New TravelRisk: Safety concerns over planes returning to service during COVID-19

Planes in storage at Alice SpringsIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionPlanes in storage at Alice Springs

Experts are warning airlines to take extra care when reactivating planes left in storage during the pandemic.

Pilot rustiness, maintenance errors and even insect nests could be potential dangers for aircraft re-entering service.

Travel restrictions have caused a huge decline in flying, with many planes put in extended storage.

As a result, there has been a spike in the number of reported problems as planes return to service.

“Every aircraft is going to have a specific set of instructions for maintenance, but it has never been done on this scale before,” said Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor of aviation magazine FlightGlobal.

Along with regulators, insurers have also expressed concern. “We’ve got people returning to work who are quite rusty, which is a big issue,” said Gary Moran, head of Asia aviation at insurance broker Aon.

Not ‘like riding a bike’

One of the most worrying problems is an increase in the number of poorly-handled landing approaches.

The number of so-called “unstabilised approaches” has sharply increased this year, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

They can result in hard landings, runway overshoots or even crashes.

In May, a Pakistan International Airlines jet crashed after an unstabilised approach, killing 97 people, while 18 died in an Air India Express crash on landing in August, also after an unstabilised approach.

Experts say that pilots might need to be more cautious than usual as they re-enter service.

“Flying an aircraft can be quite technical. If you haven’t been doing it for a while, it’s certainly not second nature like riding a bike,” Mr Waldron added.

However, he said airlines are aware of the issue and in many cases have booked extra time for their pilots in flight simulators.

Maintenance difficulties

Aircraft in storage typically undergo a routine maintenance schedule to ensure they’re ready to return to service when business improves.

Asia Pacific Airline Storage, which has a facility at Alice Springs that stores planes for Cathay Pacific and Singapore airlines, employs more than 70 maintenance crew.

Manufacturers also give very detailed instructions about how to store their aircraft. But there have still been some reported problems.

For example, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said there has been a surge in the number of reports of unreliable airspeed and altitude readings during the first flight after a plane leaves storage.

In some cases, take-offs have had to be abandoned or the aircraft has had to return to base.

Insect nests

In many previous cases problems with airspeed readings have been due to insects or larvae in the aircraft’s pitot tubes, which are key components used to measure air speed.

These issues are well known within the aviation industry, and Mr Waldron said he thinks airline travel will remain safe.

But he added that there will be some issues, because planes have been stored for longer than before, and in some cases the planes in storage are new models, which means the potential issues are not as well documented.

Unreliable Airspeed And The Hidden Risks Of Aircraft Storage – contaminated air data systems create new Travelrisks

Covid-19 has created a lot of unknowns in our industry. Amongst the noise of statistics and global media, it is important to remain vigilant to the risks specific to aviation that the virus has created. Most of us will have heard by now that aviation itself is not inherently dangerous, but terribly unforgiving of complacency. Never has this been more important than when returning 75% of the world’s fleet from storage to the skies.

The dramatic effect that Covid-19 has had on the aviation industry has grounded an unprecedented number of aircraft. They have been placed into storage whilst the world waits to recover. The pandemic emerged without warning, and some operators were likely not prepared for what was coming.

Now travel bans are lifting, airports are reopening, and airlines are scrambling to return aircraft to the skies.

EASA recently released a disturbing Safety Information Bulletin. There has been an alarming trend in the number of aircraft experiencing unreliable speed and altitude indications during first flights after storage, caused by contaminated air data systems.

The result has been multiple rejected take offs and airborne returns. Most of the events have been caused by nesting insects in the pitot static system – even after covers were installed.

Modern flight instruments provide large amounts of information to crew with great precision, while automation makes flying transport category aircraft almost routine. Flight envelope protections and aural/tactile warnings keep us safe even in most abnormal scenarios.

At the heart of all of this is the air data computer (ADC) – a small piece of hardware that needs accurate information from outside of the aircraft to work correctly.  They are the “Achille’s heel” of modern electronic flight information systems. In a nutshell, these small computers obtain and process information from the aircraft’s pitot static system, and supply critical systems with information such as airspeed, altitude and temperature.

Like all computers, they don’t think for themselves. They are only as accurate as the information they receive. So, when the pitot static system is contaminated, they can only respond to what they sense. They can’t look out the window.

History has shown that unreliable airspeed events are dangerous:

February 6, 1996. Birgenair Flight 301, a Boeing 757, departed Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, on a routine flight. During the climb out, the Captain’s airspeed indicator began to increase dramatically. The autopilot reacted as designed, and increased pitch to reduce airspeed, while the auto-throttles reduced power.

In the meantime, the co-pilot’s ASI indicated a dangerously slow airspeed which was decreasing. Almost simultaneously, an overspeed warning was generated. The autopilot reached the limits of its programming and disengaged. The stick-shaker activated, warning the confused crew that the aircraft was flying critically close to a stall.

The Captain responded by applying full thrust. The excessively high angle of attack resulted in insufficient airflow to match demand and the left-hand engine flamed out. The right-hand engine developed full power and the aircraft entered a spin. Moments later the aircraft became inverted, before impacting the Atlantic Ocean. The three pilots had 43,000 hours of experience between them.

A Mud Dauber Wasp entering the pitot tube of a 737.

The cause of the accident was a blockage of a single pitot tube. The likely culprit was the black and yellow mud dauber – a small wasp known to nest in artificial cylindrical structures. The aircraft hadn’t flown in 20 days.

The threat of similar events is greatly increased by improper storage techniques and rushing to return to service.

Getting aircraft flying again is a complex process and presents major risks. It is up to operators to ensure adequate procedures are in place to accomplish it safely. They must anticipate the difficulties and rapid adaptation to internal procedures that this entails.

Don’t know where to start? We don’t blame you. Thankfully, EASA has published guidance which can help mitigate some of these risks. Here is a brief rundown of their recommendations:

  • Assemble your A-team. Everyone needs to be onboard. Flight operations, CAMOs, maintenance organisations, type certificate holders and aviation authorities are your first port of call. Find out what needs to be done for each individual tail number and communicate with human resources for manpower, supply chain for the tools, and flight ops for hangar spacing and crewing. Think about who you need to talk too and get started early.
  • Similar aircraft stored in similar conditions will invariably behave in the same way. Safe return to service begins with good data. It is vital that defects are reported and linked. If a nest is found in an aircraft’s pitot tube, the odds are there will be many more. The data needs to be analysed, and operating procedures (such as additional checks) need to be changed to reflect it.
  • Storage Procedures. It is possible that aircraft were not fully stored in accordance with manufacturer procedures. Implement a rock-solid audit programme to make sure things are being done properly. EASA recommend extra inspections, ground runs and flight testing of at least ten percent of aircraft before release to service.
  • Storage Environment The storage environment presents significant hazards to airworthiness. Insects, sand, salt, dust and humidity can all damage aircraft. There may not have been enough protective covers to go around. Was there biocide in the fuel? Is it even useable? It is advised that extra checks be carried out on aircraft parts that are susceptible to contamination, particularly pitot/static systems. Get additional support to add those inspections.

Jet Fuel contaminated with bacterial growth.

  • Remote Storage This presents unique challenges. Engineering services may be limited, and staff may become overwhelmed with the large number of aircraft waiting to become airworthy. You may need to send additional manpower or require ferry permits to move aircraft around. Is enough equipment on hand to complete extra checks?

A Boeing 777 in deep storage in the Australian outback.

  • Time. Nothing happens in a day. Commercial time pressure is a major risk factor. Getting an airplane airworthy can cause delays and rushing has a profound effect on safety. Plan ahead and make sure your deadlines are realistic. Communicate them with your staff to ensure confidence.
  • Inappropriate decision making. This is hazardous, particularly with unfamiliar procedures. Storage on this scale has never happened before and answers may not be in existing manuals. Key personal may not be immediately available to help. Remind staff not to act alone and create a team responsible for making decisions in this challenging scenario
  • Limited staff experience. Remember that this has never happened before and you may need the help of staff who are new to your organisation. Make sure they are aware of internal procedures that they need to know beforehand. It is a good idea to properly supervise them and assess their work.

Big teams: It takes a lot of people to get aircraft back in the air.

  • The elephant in the room. Covid-19. The virus has changed the way we can work. Staff can’t move around as freely and there may be restrictions on how many people can work together. You may need to plan ahead and establish isolated teams who work remotely if practical.
  • Overdue maintenance. Airworthiness directives, MELs, routine maintenance, inspections, ground runs, test flights. There is a lot to do. Start with comprehensive airworthiness reviews of each individual tail number.
  • They will be under the same pressure that you are. Communicate with them ahead of time and check their availability.
  • Pilot training. It is likely they are uncurrent, and operating aircraft which have just come out of long-term storage. Simulator training should be relevant to the challenges they will face in the current operating environment. Consider critical systems vulnerable to damage in storage and the affect that these might have on the first flight. In other words, expect the unexpected and provide them with the ability to react quickly and with confidence.

Reported by the Ops Group on 21 August 2020.