A sobering report suggests that an Emirates 777 came within 200 feet of crashing in Dubai due to pilot error. This report is not confirmed, but numerous data points suggest something went terribly wrong aboard EK231.
Did EK231 Nearly Crash Over Dubai?
First noted by God Save The Points, here’s what we know about what happened:
- The incident occurred aboard Emirates EK231 traveling from Dubai (DXB) to Washington Dulles (IAD) on December 20, 2021
- The flight was scheduled to depart at 2:25AM utilizing a Boeing 777-300ER (A6-EQI)
- Pilots failed to set the autopilot to an altitude of 4,000 feet, the initial climb altitude, instead leaving it at 0 feet (presumably set by pilots on the previous flight in order to land in Dubai)
- After takeoff, the plane’s nose pitched down
- At one point, the aircraft was traveling at 262 knots at a flight level of 175 feet (far faster than normal) over Diera City Center (near the airport)
- Pilots realized the error and corrected it, but even though the plane potentially “sustained damage” elected to continue to Washington, DC
- At IAD, the plane was checked for cracks as well as damage to the wings, flaps, and landing gear
- The return flight, EK232, departed about three hours late
- The 777-300ER sat on the ground in Dubai for two days before operating to Kuwait (KWI) earlier today and is currently in Geneva (GVA)
What Other Evidence Do We Have About EK231?
Beyond this timeline, we have both flight data from Flightradar24 suggesting the low altitude over Diera as well as the following memo Emirates sent to pilots concerning 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.
FCOM means “Flight Crew Operating Manual” and MCP means “Mode Control Panel” which is used to instruct the autopilot to hold a specific altitude.
What Should We Make Of This?
This is really big news and I find it highly unlikely there is not some truth to this report.
It does not mean that flying is unsafe or that Emirates is unsafe. Flying remains one of the safest modes of transport and far safer, statistically, than stepping into your car and driving down the road.
But this story does show that pilot error is possible and that it goes beyond a simple autopilot vs. human error tradeoff. Here, sloppiness may have led the autopilot, also called flight director, to be improperly configured.
Still, pre-flight checklists should have prevented this and reports suggest all four pilots in the cockpit have been terminated.
I’m not about to avoid Emirates if this report is true. If anything, it will make me more likely to fly Emirates because pilots will now be extra vigilant. As horrifying as this report is, it seems that Emirates is already holding responsible parties accountable and taking steps to make sure this does not happen again.
Initial reports suggest EK231 almost crashed while departing from Dubai on December 20, 2021 due to pilot error. A deadly crash would have deeply set back Emirates and commercial aviation in general, but far importantly led to the loss of life for what were probably more than 300 souls onboard plus countless more on the ground.
If this report is accurate, hopefully Emirates and airlines around the world will learn from this incident and pilots will take extra steps to ensure that pre-flight checklists are closely followed.