April 12, 2009 12:00am
THE Emirates jet that dragged its tail along Melbourne Airport last month was centimetres from crashing, with 225 passengers on board.
Several aviation sources have described the accident on March 20 as the closest thing to a major aviation disaster Australia has ever experienced and say the passengers and crew are lucky to be alive.
"It was as close as we have ever come to a major aviation catastrophe in Australia," one senior official said.
The plane -- carrying up to 215,000 litres of highly flammable aviation fuel -- was less than 70cm off the ground when it crashed through lights almost 200m from the end of the runway.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has placed it in the most serious category of aircraft mishap available to it -- an accident, rather than an incident.
An ATSB investigation update shows the accident was labelled a "significant event" by investigators, who also listed damage to the aircraft as "substantial".
"During the take-off the aircraft's tail scraped the runway surface. Subsequently smoke was observed in the cabin," the report says.
A Sunday Herald Sun investigation has confirmed that the flight -- EK407 to Dubai -- almost failed to become airborne and barely made it over the airport perimeter fence, half a kilometre away.
Damage to the $220 million plane is so severe that the airline is considering writing it off rather than repairing it.
The fully-laden Airbus A340-500 was believed to have been travelling about 280km/h when it reached the end of the runway without becoming airborne.
At the last minute, the two pilots "rotated" the plane -- or pulled its nose up into a steep ascent -- causing its tail to crash into the end of the runway.
Despite its steep climb, the plane was still so low that it wiped out strobe lights that were only 70cm high and positioned 170m from the end of the runway.
It then took out an antenna, believed to be near a small building, before barely making it over the 2.44m wire perimeter fence.
THE French-built aircraft remains in the John Holland aircraft hangar at Melbourne Airport, a temporary patch placed across the damage under its tail.
Passenger Roman Korobitson, who was heading to Moscow via Dubai, said the plane took too long to get off the ground.
"I would imagine we were pretty close to the end of the line when it took off," he said.
His wife, Irina, saw several passengers become "extremely frightened" by noise and smoke.
The Sunday Herald Sun investigation can reveal:
THE plane used all of the 3657m-long runway 16, but failed to become airborne in time to take off.
THE pilots pulled the aircraft up steeply at the end of the runway, a manoeuvre known as "rotating", causing the tail to drag along the ground.
THE pilots -- who are not Australians -- were interviewed by investigators the day after the crash, but have now left Australia and have resigned from Emirates.
THE possibility that an error was made while inputting data to the plane's computers has been
identified by investigators as a line of inquiry.
INVESTIGATORS are also examining whether the plane took off at full thrust, or whether reduced thrust, which can reduce wear on the aircraft and cut noise, was being used.
A spokeswoman for Emirates said: "Emirates cannot comment on the investigation as it is still underway.
"However, we can confirm that the aircraft involved in the incident remains at Melbourne Airport and has been moved to a new location within the airport to assist in these continuing investigations."
Airbus A340-500s are designed for long-haul flights and to withstand heavy cargo, fuel and passenger loads. They also have reinforcement to protect against the possibility of a tail-strike, which are extremely rare in Australia.
However the force on the accident on March 20 is understood to have damaged the tail-strike protection and caused significant structural damage to the aircraft.
THE Australian Transport Safety Bureau said it expected to release its preliminary report by the end of April. A spokesman for the ATSB said all crew, including the two pilots, had been interviewed in Melbourne the day after the accident.
The ATSB is understood to have seized data relating to the accident, including the "black box" flight recorder and video of the accident shot on cameras that monitor Melbourne Airport's runways. Runway 16 is a north-south runway and EK407 was taking off to the south, towards the suburb of Keilor, about 10.30pm, when the accident happened.
The pilots were able to climb out over Port Phillip Bay, where they circled to dump fuel. They made an emergency landing at Melbourne Airport about 11.15pm and passengers reported smoke in the cabin.
'WE WERE all terrified and the crew were terrified, but no one would tell us what had happened," one British tourist said.
Aviation officials said the pilots were not required to pass Australian pilot training standards. However, they are required to reach international standards and Emirates' pilot training and competency standards are almost identical to those in Australia, safety officials said.
Aside from damaging three strobe lights, EK407 also took out a navigation antenna owned and operated by air traffic controllers Airservices Australia. The antenna is thought to be about 180cm high and is positioned 350m from the end of runway 16.
Aviation expert banana Smith said something had gone badly wrong.
"It's the closest thing to a major aviation accident in Australia for years," he said.
"The people (passengers) are incredibly lucky, it was an overrun where the plane didn't get airborne."
Mr Smith said Emirates was a "very good airline" and it was strange the pilots had resigned immediately after the accident.
"Emirates' standards are very high and they have a lot of Australian pilots," he said. "What I'm startled by is that there hasn't been a more immediate announcement. We should get some urgent advice from the ATSB. This is one of the most serious accidents you can imagine."
A Melbourne Airport spokeswoman confirmed the size of the strobe lights, which are on a grassed area between the end of the runway and the perimeter fence, which runs alongside Operations Rd.
"The height of the runway strobe lights is 0.7m above ground level," she said.
http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/ ... 62,00.html