An Emirates jetliner was attempting to abort its landing at Dubai’s airport shortly before the plane hit the runway and burst into flames Wednesday, causing the worst aircraft loss in the airline’s 30-year history.
All passengers and crew escaped from the Boeing Co. 777-300 following the 12:45 p.m. explosion on Flight 521 from Thiruvananthapuram, India. A firefighter was killed trying to extinguish the blaze, Emirates Chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum said at an evening news conference in Dubai.
The trouble with the flight was “operational,” he said, adding he didn’t believe there was any security issue. The pilot might have attempted a so-called go-around – that is, aborting the landing – to avoid wind shear, but that hadn’t been verified, Sheikh Ahmed said.
The airport had issued a wind-shear warning for all runways before the accident, according to the AviationSafetyNetwork website. The condition occurs when wind direction changes abruptly. In extreme cases, it can be severe enough that a plane will lose lift and plunge.
“It’s difficult to speculate about what happened in the last few minutes of the flight, but I want to thank the crew for their professionalism and evacuating the plane in a short time,” Sheikh Ahmed said. The pilot and co-pilot had logged more than 7,000 of flying hours each, he said.
Flight 521 had been cleared to land at Dubai, according to a transcript of an air-traffic control recording obtained by LiveATC.net. About a minute and a-half later, the tower gave a new instruction.
“Emirates 521 climb straight ahead to 4,000 feet” (1,200 meters), a controller said, a command acknowledged by the pilot. The reason for the order wasn’t known. Typically, such instructions are issued after pilots request to abort touchdowns.
Television footage and newswire photos showed that the aircraft slid to a halt on its belly, with one of its huge Rolls-Royce engines detached. The jet then quickly became engulfed in smoke and fire, which gutted the length of the fuselage and burned off the roof. The jumbo jet carried 282 passengers and 18 crew members, according to Emirates, the world’s biggest carrier by international traffic.
Emergency services sprayed down the plane to put out the fire. Passengers and crew hurried to safety down inflatable slides. Thirteen people were hospitalized with minor injuries, Sheikh Ahmed said. Dubai airport, the world’s third-busiest by passenger numbers, shut down shortly after the crash and reopened at 6:30 p.m. on a restricted basis, giving priority to arriving flights.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is sending a five-person team to assist with the investigation, a spokesman said. Under a United Nations treaty, the government from where the plane was manufactured is invited to participate in a probe.
Despite the reported winds, the pilots should have been able to land the plane — or climb to safety if they were uncomfortable with the situation, said John Cox, president of Safety Operating Systems and a former airline pilot.
“Professional pilots deal with high winds and gusty winds on a regular basis,” Cox said in an interview. “It’s like cruise-ship captains. You are going to have to learn to dock that thing when it’s calm or when winds are at 40 knots.” At this point, investigators won’t rule anything out, looking at weather conditions, possible pilot missteps and potential failures of aircraft systems, he said.
The aircraft involved entered service in 2003 and was current for regular maintenance and inspections, Sheikh Ahmed.
John Nance, a former commercial and U.S. Air Force pilot who has flown a 777, said videos from the scene indicate that the landing gear may not have been fully deployed when Flight 521 touched down.
“This is a situation where it looks very much like the aircraft was landing with gear up. It does appear this was a belly flop,” he said. “Why is a good question, especially if the aircraft was ordered to go around.”
Boeing’s 777 model is the largest twin-engine airliner in production and the most used wide-body. Emirates is the biggest operator of the plane as well as of Airbus Group SE’s A380 double-decker. The Boeing aircraft is also one of the safest, with only a handful suffering irreparable damage since the model’s introduction two decades ago, including incidents caused by war or pilot error, according to Aviation Safety Network.
Boeing is standing by with a technical team to help U.S. authorities investigating the accident, the U.S. planemaker said on its website. Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, which made the jet’s Trent 800 engines, also said it was ready to take part in the probe.
Wednesday’s 3 1/2-hour flight started midmorning from Thiruvananthapuram on India’s southwest coast. Emirates serves the region mainly to ferry Indian workers to jobs in the Middle East.
The carrier has built its business on exploiting the Persian Gulf’s position at the heart of intercontinental flight paths and the region’s oil industry, building Dubai into an airport that served 78 million passengers last year, making the hub the world’s biggest by international traffic. The carrier’s success has put pressure on earnings at European network airlines including Air France-KLM Group and Deutsche Lufthansa AG.