Qatar 777 Hits Runway Lights, Keeps Flying For 13 Hours

Last week I wrote about American accidentally flying the wrong plane to Hawaii, which wasn’t actually certified for overwater operations. They apparently realized the mistake past the “point of no return,” and then the flight back to the mainland was canceled. That’s a pretty huge oversight on the part of many people, and I don’t think I want to know how big the FAA’s fine for that was!

Well, are you ready for this week’s crazy airline operations story which will leave you shaking your head?

A Qatar Airways 777-300ER flying from Miami to Doha on Tuesday, September 15, 2015, hit the approach lights on departure, experienced “substantial damage”… and kept flying for over 13 hours!

Qatar-777

Via The Aviation Herald:

A Qatar Airlines Boeing 777-300, registration A7-BAC performing flight QR-778 from Miami,FL (USA) to Doha (Qatar), departed Miami’s runway 09 but struck the approach lights runway 27 during departure. Both tower, departure controllers as well as crew maintained routine communication. The aircraft continued to destination for a landing without further incident about 13.5 hours later.

On Sep 17th 2015 the FAA reported the aircraft struck approach lights on departure from Miami and continued to destination. The aircraft received substantial damage to its belly, the occurrence was rated an accident.

This is truly bizarre on many levels:

  • Runway 09 is 13,000 feet long, which is really long, even for a runway at an international airport; how they took up 13,000 feet of runway and still managed to somehow hit the approach lights at the other end of the runway is sort of shocking (below is a diagram of the runway layout, along with some arrows I added to represent the direction in which they were taking off, and where the lights would be located)
  • Pilots carefully calculate the thrust and performance needed to take off, so did they maybe have the wrong weight information before takeoff, resulting in an incident similar to what happened to Emirates 407 in Melbourne in 2009 (whereby they also hit structures at the end of the runway due to incorrect calculations)?
  • Per the METAR, there were virtually no winds at the time of the incident, though there was some rain
  • The fact that the FAA is reporting “substantial damage to its belly” and rates this as an “accident” suggests this isn’t an exaggeration

MIA-Airport

Regardless, if you have any damage to a plane before a longhaul flight, it’s utterly perplexing why you wouldn’t turn around. I only see two possible explanations for that:

  • The pilots didn’t realize the incident at the time (maybe they confused the loud noise with the gear being retracted), and only realized it upon landing in Doha
  • The pilots were scared of being fired if they reported it, so made the decision to keep flying — after all, this is Qatar Airways we’re talking about

Bottom line

I’m curious to see if anything comes of this. Hitting any sort of a structure with a plane is a big deal, especially before a longhaul flight with limited diversion points. I can’t imagine any scenario where a plane hits something shortly after takeoff and wouldn’t at least return to the airport as a precaution to make sure everything is okay.

Hopefully a proper investigation is done into what happened here. And perhaps the best way to make sure that happens is to get the story spread around as much as possible, so Qatar Airways is forced to address it from a PR standpoint.

What do you make of this Qatar Airways incident? Anyone have a different take than I do?

Comments

  1. Yikes! I remember flying LAX-AKL many years ago and starting to sweat on take-off because we were nearly to the beach before we rotated. Will be interesting to follow this one.

  2. The accident happened in the USA so the NTSB will be the lead agency investigating. Even AAB doesn’t have the ability to silence them.

    With regards to the runway length, it’s quite conceivable that they attempted an intersection departure based on the available performance data (which may not have been accurate in retrospect). It’s never a single thing that causes an accident, but an accumulation of seemingly minor things that add up.

  3. The approach lights are not heavy weight steel or something that would make a huge bang specially if hit by an ultra heavy weight b77w most probably using max engine power for take off of not (takeoff bump ).. No way a pilot would continue if he knows something stroke the belly of his airplane … Most probably I think there was a light tailwind instead of the reported bill wind ( which is usually the case since less than a X knots of wind speed most airports report that as calm wind or mill wind ).

  4. That is odd that it would continue to fly if it had structural damage, and even more odd that it would hit the approach lights on a 13,000 + foot runway.

    The only thing I can think of is either the pilots did not know about this until well into the flight (unlikely) or that an assessment was done and it was determined that there were no significant risks?

  5. @Sean M.

    Sir, do you have your own blog? I would be a devoted follower as I always truly enjoy your insights.

  6. A user over on airliners.com is saying that the flight took of from intersection T1 so did not have the full length of the runway. More like 2600m/8500ft aka to short for maximum takeoff weight.

  7. Interesting idea about the gear retraction noise. Funny, I had the same thought and posted it to The Aviation Herald before you wrote this article, which you obviously read since you quoted The Aviation Herald’s story here.

    You should be ashamed of yourself for insinuating that the pilots were aware of the impact and chose not to immediately report it and/or return to Miami. They would’ve known that had Miami switched from runway 09 to 27 that night, the damaged approach lights would have been obvious. Not to mention, this isn’t a drone we’re talking about. The pilots’ lives are as much at risk as the passengers if their aircraft had suffered an inflight failure.

    As reported elsewhere, the damage wasn’t noticed until the post-flight inspection at their destination.

  8. Very curious indeed. And this hits “close to home” for me. I was on that plane on the preceding DOH-MIA leg (QR 777) on the 15th. Have been bragging to everyone what a fabulous flight it was and how much I enjoyed QR business class. FWIW, the inbound was about 45 minutes late on arrival.

  9. Guessing the pilots either didn’t realize they only had 8xxx ft at the intersection or didn’t bother to look up the performance numbers on it or both. My question though, why would the MIA tower controllers even suggest an intersection departure for a 777 headed to the Middle East (assuming they were the ones who gave the option to the crew). Shouldn’t they have enough sense to realize the aircraft must be near max gross weight? And it’s always hot in MIA which translates into long takeoff runs. As Sean M pointed out, probably several things snowballed here. Just glad nobody was hurt.

  10. Bottom line Lucky:
    Who gave you the right to “expect explanations” and predetermine gross negligence?
    You are lucky by saying that “…the pilots deliberately continued to Doha” and not expect a lawsuit which you will have to pay with your “hard earned travel miles”, you ignorant uneducated racist aviation pseudo-enthusiast. Shut down your blog, but before that, proceed with a corrective statement for the pilots and the company. Screenshots taken…

  11. Wow, Lucky. Who knew AAB reads your blog and goes by the screen name Crazy D!! First Rolling Stone, now this. You are movin’ on up.

  12. I’m with Seth… Strange decision not to allow full runway for longest possible run.

    My heart always sinks when my plane turns on to the runway at an intersection!

  13. Perhaps the pilots considered that since the aircraft had lifted off the ground already, it would not be able to safely turn around and land at a light enough weight, without climbing to a height that allowed fuel dumping and/or flying in a holding pattern for hours to burn the fuel.

    Knowing this, and considering that it was only damage to the belly and not a control surface ( wings, elevators etc) the pilots probably thought it was safe to continue their flight.

  14. It’s just me, but I generally would not make an intersection takeoff in any aircraft .I probably would have the first 10 or 15 years I flew.
    In a large aircraft, there is often little reason unless you can depart in front of aircraft needing more runway–and even then you are trading away a margin of safety I personally would not trade. If you are flying corporate, your passengers will appreciate you for this.

    Over thousands of hours of flying (I have been a pilot for 39 years), you experience many events which, if they did not cause disaster, you file away as something you won’t ever do again . For me, intersection takeoffs is one.
    As to not returning to the field, my guess is they did not know about the damage. ASRS immunity would have applied to an enforcement action had it not otherwise been known to be the pilots’ fault–but of course it would have been obvious . NTSB in partnership with NASA has this: http://asrs.arc.nasa.gov/overview/immunity.html. It’s effective for a lot of things but likely not here.
    As an aside, “accident” and “substantial damage” have specific definitions under NTSB part 830.
    The owner or operator is required to report an aircraft accident (or a specific list of incidents) to NTSB “immediately and by the most expeditious means available.”
    As to the controllers—I never abide their suggestions. I take them into account, however.Most are not pilots, and on a number of occasions over the years suggested actions were unsafe.

  15. Considering that there could have been damage to the pressure vessel (think of CI611 and JL123) this is a scary one. My only guess is that the pilots did not notice – I can hardly believe they would´ve endangered the flight (and their own lives) knowingly. I´m very curious about the outcome of the investigation.

  16. @losingtrader – If I recall (it’s been 10+ years since I was involved with a US carrier), ASRS immunity doesn’t apply in the case of an accident or criminal action, only in the case of incidents. Furthermore, ASRS immunity is only applicable inside the USA – nothing stops foreign regulators, employers or governments from taking action independently of, or indeed on the basis of the de-identified ASRS information that may be shared with them.

    I’m not sure about Qatar, but in the UAE there is a very similar system to ASRS known as VORSY (Voluntary Occurence Reporting SYstem). While it is still in relative infancy, I have been quite impressed with the regulator’s commitment to encourage use of the system and to use the data for non-punitive action. All administrators of SMS for regulated aviation entities are required to incorporate VORSY into their SMS.

    Nonetheless, the truth about this incident will come to light sooner rather than later. It would be prudent to not speculate until all the facts are known, and knowing both NTSB and QCAA these won’t be known until at least the preliminary investigation is complete. At the end of the day, there were no injuries or fatalities which is the most important thing in something of this magnitude. So long as we learn from the root causes, the situation will hopefully not be repeated.

  17. “after all, this is Qatar Airways we’re talking about”–this is out-dated first-world-judging-third-world attitude. stop being so simple

  18. @ zaza — Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world… not sure how that qualifies as a “judging third world” attitude?

  19. I am a FAA international inspector, last year I did a ramp check on Qatar Airways, then the following week rode as a passenger on the same flight from Miami to Doha. I have a house in Manila, Philippines. This flight connects out of Doha and is a convenient connection. I am also a retired airline pilot 40 years with 35 as a Captain on large airplanes. My last assignment EVA Air Taiwan. There should be double crew on this flight since it is over 12 hours.How can 4 pilots make that mistake. They took on from the intersection and left about 4 or 5 thousand feet of runway behind them. All four pilots should be dismissed immediately. This company is a fast growth airline. Beware of the crew quality.

  20. Airliners thread linked above has a photo of the end of the runway and the lights that were damaged. It’s pretty scary to think what a close call this was.

  21. Addendum to my last post. Most carriers have as their policy that all assigned flight crew be seated in the cockpit during take off and landing. There are 4 seats in the B-777, 2 pilots and 2 jump seats, assuming there are 4 pilots that means there are 4 sets of eyes looking at 4 to 5 thousand of runway behind them as he took the intersection for take off by mistake. He hit the ALS lighting towers that are about 20 to 30 ft high some distance from the departure runway. Runway 9 has maybe 1000 feet of overrun and another 1000 ft before the first tower which meant the landing gear probably contacted the first tower and also the the second one. I can think of only one US accident like this Pan American B-747 runway 1R San Francisco July 1971 when the crew did not account for about 2000 ft of displace threshold for the take off, meaning you leave 2000 ft behind you when you take off, that was to prevent blowing cars off the highway that was near the runway . I was flying into San Francisco at that time. The Pan Am B-747 aircraft contacted the lighting system at the end of the runway, about 10 ft high, and came back for an emergency landing with a loss of most hydraulics and very nearly lost the aircraft. This one with Qatar B-777 came very close with loss of aircraft and heavy population at the end of runway 9 and 125,000 kg of fuel maybe close to 300 passengers very lucky with just a few feet to disaster, The training requirements for these pilots are dismal, that was my job as an expat pilot instructor at EVA Airlines,.so far a perfect record of compliance.The Mideast carriers have the money to buy the equipment but you cant buy experience..

  22. New details say they cleared the road by 100 feet off the arrival of 27! Several friends that fly the 777-300 say at max gross 8500 feet of runway was not enough. Seems likely they were running out of runway and yanked it off the ground. I am sure all 4 pilots are no longer employed as of today. Anyone remember EK A340-500 in 2009! Scary stuff.

  23. Considering the height of (the remains of) the damaged approach light shown in the photo at Airliners.net, which appears to be 10 or 12 feet tall, I seriously doubt the noise of the impact, if heard at all, could have been mistaken for any landing gear retraction thumps at that altitude.

    Any pilot flying any aircraft with retractable landing gear at that height after using every available inch of the runway would certainly want to retract the gear as soon as possible to reduce drag, but to suggest that they heard something and thought it was any of the gear doors closing at that height seems fantastic.

    If they had raised the gear immediately upon leaving the ground, and been at that height when the gear doors closed, they were only a few feet and a few seconds from a crash, whether they struck the approach lights or not. Those pilots must have experienced a pucker factor of 15 on a pucker scale of 10 just getting airborne. Hitting the approach lights was probably the least of their worries and with the engines at takeoff power, they very well may not have heard the impact, nor even seen the lights.

    Perhaps someone in the know could advise whether the approach lights of the opposite runway would even be visible from the opposite direction.

    Can’t wait to see the NTSB report.

  24. Hi One Mile at a Time,

    What email address do I use to contact the marketing departments of Qatar, Emirates and Gulf ?

    Thankyou,

    Richard

  25. So many assumptions and guesses. Qatar Airways pilots are just a professional and safe as other airline pilots. Had they known of the damage they would have returned to MIA. Why? They still would have known they would be disciplined. They would not risk the airplane, passengers, or themselves just to get to destination. Besides, if I made that mistake and knew of it, I would rather wait for the spanking in Miami than in Doha.

  26. Yeah, let’s not get into questioning the integrity and professionalism of Qatar’s crew. Their lives are at stake too- not just those of their passengers. If they knew or suspected anything, they would’ve turned back.
    Keep this blog professional too – don’t make accusations of insinuations without fact.

  27. “So many assumptions and guesses.”
    There are some obvious facts here as well.

    For the aircraft to have been at that altitude after clearing the runway, there were either some serious human factors, or some serious mechanical factors involved, which will be the task of the investigators to sort out.

    To give the pilots the benefit of the doubt, is to assume a mechanical failure. However, if it was a mechanical failure which caused the aircraft’s lack of ability to gain the necessary takeoff altitude to clear the approach light, a failure which nearly ended in disaster, it would hardly seem prudent to continue on to Doha.

    On the other hand, putting aside the approach light strike and buying into the story that the strike had gone unnoticed, continuing on to Doha after the near disaster seems to indicate that the pilots KNEW why the aircraft had not gained altitude, and that the cause had NOT been mechanical. Perhaps the plane was improperly configured for takeoff, or some switch had not been flipped, but after that near-miss with Mother Earth, I have to believe the pilots knew why the aircraft failed to gain altitude and corrected that problem, without being aware of the damage to the aircraft.

    If we rule out mechanical failure since the aircraft was able to fly all of the way to Doha without further issues, this of course brings us back to the pilots, and perhaps the controllers to some extent if they had assigned the intersection takeoff, which the pilots had every right to refuse if they thought it unsafe based on their weight calculations and the prevailing wind and weather conditions.

    The pilots were certainly lucky not only to have survived the nearly disastrous takeoff, but also that the pressure vessel of the aircraft had not been compromised by the damage from the approach light strike. The pilots should have immediately gone and bought lottery tickets on arrival in Doha, because I doubt their luck is going to save their jobs.

  28. It appears the crew danced with two potential killers on that takeoff. One is using an intersection without proper performance data. In such a case, it is possible to use the wrong intersection or wrong data. The other potential killer is going into the performance look-up with the wrong weight. Too light a weight may result in using the wrong “assumed temperature” and vee speeds.

    I’m not a proponent of second-guessing crews, but when something “doesn’t seem right” it usually isn’t, and the pilots who agonize on killer items tend to avoid things like this.

    It is frightening to think of what could have happened if the hull burst in cruise after being damaged. If you look at the checklists, Boeing warns not to pressurize the plane. Dump fuel and land at the nearest suitable airport.

  29. 100,000 of miles sitting in First/business class, a air safety investigation one does not make.
    Best you keep to swapping frequent flyer miles….

    -A 6500 hour, B737-800 captain and air safety investigator.

  30. There are 2 issues here :
    1. Why the crew didn’t use the full length? Was it taxiway T1 mistaken as the end of the taxiway and assumed as a full length departure? Look at the airport diagram. Very easy to make that mistake if you are not familiar with the airport. Remember that this crew fly all over the planet.
    2. Even more serious is the fact of hitting the lights and not returning to MIA. Performance wise, the aircraft is certified to cross the end of the runway at at least 50ft if you are not airborne before the touchdown zone of the opposite rwy something is definitely wrong. As a pilot you can. Judge your height above the rwy in a daylight but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Did Atc notice the damage to the lights? Did they notify that to the crew? Way to many questions with no answers.

    It is not a secret in the industry how the middle east companies treat their crews and the punitive culture. There is not legal protection, no union, nothing…. You are on your own. Needless to say what is the mind set of the crew if anything happens.

    Let’s wait and see the final report.

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