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.
In this post:
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.
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
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.