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Pilot fatigue may have contributed to near miss

Investigations into a near-disaster at Melbourne airport in March, 2009, suggest that pilot fatigue may have been a contributing factor.

The take-off incident, during which the tail of an Emirates-run Airbus 340-500 repeatedly struck the ground, took place after cross-checks failed to pick up a miscalculation that calibrated performance systems for an aircraft weight 100 tonnes lighter than the actual weight.

With the craft struggling to gain height, flight crew averted what would have otherwise been Australia’s worst civil aviation disaster by initiating a take-off go-around (TOGA) procedure that rapidly increased thrust and allowed them to ascend.

It was not until later, after prompts from the craft’s damage warning systems led the crew to begin preparations for an emergency landing, that the pilots became aware of the error.
An Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) investigation is ongoing and targeting, amongst other factors, ‘the effectiveness of the human interface of computer based planning tools’.

According to a report recently published in The Australian newspaper claims that one of the pilots, who is yet to be identified, entered the plane’s weight into control systems as 262 tonnes rather than 362.

While the ATSB are yet to draw conclusions about the possibility that pilot fatigue played a role in the incident, The Australian reports that the Captain, who claimed to have obtained only 3.5 hours of sleep over the previous 24 hours and had flown almost 100 hours over the previous month, did not undertake the take-off. Instead, this responsibility was given to the flight’s First Officer, who had clocked less than a third of the hours clocked by the Captain in the Airbus 340-500.

According to The Australian, the Captain and First Officer were asked to resign upon their eventual return to the Emirates base in Dubai. The airline is also said to have instigated additional checklists in an effort to prevent the event from re-occurring.

The ATSB’s final report into the incident is expected at the end of October, 2009.

sources: The Australian, ATSB