Off-roading at Vilnius

9 Feb 24 5 Comments

On the 3rd of February 2024, an Airbus A320-200, registered in Lithuania as LY-NVL, departed the runway upon landing at Vilnius, Lithuania. This was an Avion Express flight, an operator based in Vilnius that offers seasonal flights to Egypt and performs charter flights for tour operators.

Flight NVD8242 was a chartered passenger flight from Milan, Italy, to Vilnius, with 179 passengers and six crew on board.

The weather that day was overcast with clouds at 300 feet above ground level. Visibility was 5,000 metres and wind coming from 280° at 13 knots.

Vilnius Airport has a single runway made of asphalt concrete, 01/19, which is 2,515 meters long and fifty metres (164 feet) wide. Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite wide enough.

The runway in use that day was Runway 19 (approximately south), meaning that the wind from 280° (approximately west) and the poor weather made for a challenging landing. The Airbus seemed to touchdown just fine but once on the runway, it abruptly veered off the runway for some off-roading in the mud.

A passenger told, “When the plane landed on the grass, mud began to spray on its windows; you couldn’t see anything through them anymore.”

This might be an artifact of the translation, but the aircraft didn’t actually land on the grass.  I don’t know any Lithuanian speakers so I had to make do with machine translation, but if you speak Lithuanian, please feel free to correct me in the comments. In any event, the aircraft clearly landed on the runway and then swerved off.  

This image from FlightRadar24 clearly shows the deviation from the runway.

It looks like just a slight deviationg but you can get a better idea of what happened from this unattributed video posted to Twitter, which shows the aircraft as it leaves the runway. Someone’s added music so you might want to turn the sound off before watching:

That first still in the sequence isn’t from the same person (and was probably used without permission).

That photograph was taken by aviation photographer Benas Kontautas, who lives in Vilnius. He was lucky enough to be in exactly the right place and the right time to get an amazing series of the Airbus spraying mud as it continued alongside the runway. He posted the photographs to Facebook.

If you don’t have Facebook, you can also see the photographs by Kontautas in this gallery.

The Airbus A320 returned to the asphalt and continued travelling to the next turn-off, where it taxied to the apron.

This two-minute video (without music! hurray!) shows the full sequence, starting with the Airbus touching down and landing. At the forty-second mark, it drifts across the runway and begins to spray the mud and water. The aircraft comes to a halt and then the engines power back up to carefully return onto the runway.

VASAviation has the interchange between the aircraft and Vilnius Tower overlayed with footage of the aircraft coming off the runway at 1:21. It’s worth a listen just to hear the dry tones of the exchange between the flight and the controller.

The controller and the flight crew had been speaking to each other in English up until this point.

Tower: “Nordwind 8242”
Nordwind 8242: “Atsakom.” Go ahead.
Tower: “Ehm, matau jūs nuslydote nuo [unintelligible].” Um, I see you’ve slipped off the runway.
Nordwind 8242: “Tikrai taip.” Indeed, yes.
Tower: “Kokios pagalbos reikia?” What help do you need?
Nordwind 8242: “Kol kras nereikia.” No assistance needed at the moment.
The aircraft returns to the runway.
Tower: (switching back to English) “Nordwind 8242, are you able to taxi on your own power or do you need any assistance?”
Nordwind 8242: “[unintelligible] able on our own power, Nordwind 8242”
Tower: “Okay…continue via Echo, Foxtrot and then left to Juliet, stand 207.”

I can just imagine Maintenance listening to this and thinking, Um?

A passenger in good spirits took a video while still in the cabin, showing a brief view of the mud on the windows and then, as they disembark, the grass under the fuselage of the aircraft. There were no injuries.

The runway was closed for a detailed inspection. As Vilnius Airport has only one runway, this means that the airport was closed for about three hours. Inbound flights were diverted to Kaunas and Palanga airports.

Photographs taken the following day show the panels of the fuselage ripped off of the fuselage.

There have been some very snide comments about this being the result of pay-to-fly airlines, which I think is not reasonable. Pay-to-fly schemes are run by some airlines where professional pilots are expected to pay the airline for the privilege of being a part of the flight crew. The justification is that the pilot gains experience and possibly a type-rating by paying to fly for the airline. This can cost the pilot from 14,000€ to 85,000€ for 500-hours flight time.

Pay-to-fly schemes are considered by many, including me, to be a dubious practice. However, although it is a contentious issue, in most countries, there is no regulation to stop this practice. In France, the very idea of an employee paying to work for the employer is illegal. In the US, there are minimum requirements that the pilot must have already achieved before being able to pay to fly with an airline. Most civil aviation authorities have been silent on the question of whether pay-to-fly is unsafe or exploitative, including Lithuania. Lithuanian operator Small Planet Airlines was confirmed in 2015 as offering a pay-to-fly scheme; the Lithuanian aviation authority revoked its operations license in 2018, but not for that reason.

However, I did not find any direct references to Avion Express, who was the operator of this flight, using pilots hired under pay-to-fly schemes. Their website shows normal recruitment promising long-term contracts and competitive payment. There’s no evidence that the flight crew on this flight were anything other than experienced pilots hired under normal contracts, although likely underpaid.

I was pleased to see a poster on PPRuNe comment about some of the negative assumptions about the pilots.

I hate to spoil the “have a pop at the new generation” thing, but I know of a case in the ’80s where, not only did the crew not admit they’d been off piste, but due to low viz, the tracks on the grass were only discovered by Ops in the morning, when the aircraft was tucked up on stand, looking a bit sorry for itself. There’s nothing new under the sun…

Amazing. I’d love to track that one down!


  • Who was the pilot flying, and who was monitoring?
    A stiff crosswind on a wet runway can be a handful for an inexperienced pilot and it may be advisable to be cautious when applying reverse thrust. I agree, the landing seemed quite normal and controlled.
    The runway length, judging from the apparent stretch still ahead of the Airbus as it resumed taxi after the excursion, left ample (wet) concrete for a more controlled and less dramatic aftermath of the arrival.

    It must be noted here that pictures, taken with a long lens, always give a distortion that makes the scene look far more dramatic, but even so…
    At least, they regained control and nobody was hurt.

    By the look of it, there was some serious damage done to the aircraft. Possibly “more than “kin deep”, to paraphrase the slogan used by Cessna to describe the beauty and quality of their products.

    In principle, there need not be anything wrong with a scheme that enables newbie pilots to pay for flying time in order to accumulate hours that potentially leads to an airline job.

    In Europe, pilots may start as first officer as soon as they have a CPL, instrument rating and multi-engine qualification. Most, if not all, have completed the theory for an ATPL which will in most cases be issued only after having completed 1500 hours on commercial operations.
    In my time – maybe that has changed – this was subject to the experience being gained on types of aircraft, and operating under an airline operational permit. Not a “FAR 25” style operation.

    I have been part of such an operation. I was captain on a Fokker F27 air cargo operator. The company charged, if I remember correctly, about $ 100.000. The newly minted pilot would be sent to a professional flying establishment, including a full simulator course (at Maastricht in the Netherlands). These simulator sessions would be conducted together with recurrent training of one of the captains, so in a full crew environment.

    Company procedures would be adhered to, so the new FO would gain a good working knowledge of the regulations.

    A type rating in the Netherlands is actually subject to the same requirements as those for a captain. Examiners are appointed by the Dutch CAA, although this was pre-JAROPS. Command was actually left up to the operator, but usually would involve “command training” and a left-hand seat checkride.

    Once fully type qualified, the new FO would start his or her career in the right-hand seat, with a line training captain and an experienced FO in the jumpseat to help out, and to take over if necessary.
    Once the training captain would be satisfied with the new FO’s performance, the extra crew member was no longer required.

    After about 100 hours the chief pilot would schedule an official “line check”. Once this would be passed to the satisfaction of the training captain, the FO would be officially released “on line” and from there on would also be paid a salary.

    Very few did not complete their rating, the motivation was quite high and so was in general their standard.

    I was unfortunate that my age went against me. I was retired at age 60 when France imposed a rule that no commercial pilot was allowed to operate in French airspace once he or she had passed the ripe old age of 60.

    Most, if not all, found their way into the airlines. They had a bit of a hard time during the covid-19 period, but they eventually returned to work. Only very few are captains of regional turbo-prop aircraft, most of the others are captains on B737, A 320, even B747.

    I do not remember that there was one single “weak link” among them.
    Only one did not make the grade, strange enough a female.
    Her performance was actually consistently excellent: “Standard-plus” or “Above standard”. Her downfall was that she could not stop arguing, even when the reason(s) for a certain course of action were explained.
    I failed her when she took her objections (It was about a certain procedure regarding the use of water-methanol injection to boost take-off power) to another captain, who happened to be in the jumpseat as a positioning crew member.
    Unless the captain is making a decision that puts the safety of the aircraft in jeopardy, arguing use of a totally logical alternative procedure with a non-operating person in the cockpit, at the point of departure, is a very bad idea. It disrupts the pre-flight checks and procedures and violates the “sterile cockpit”.

    Apart from undermining the captain in front of a mon-operating crew member.

    I wrote this to provoke a reaction: was I right to fail her?
    The chief pilot later passed her, that is another story.
    In a twist of fate, she was later hired by KLM where she failed too.

    In my opinion, generally the system of “pay to fly” was fair and opened career possibilities for those who could avail of it.

    OK, for completion’s sake:
    The performance of the Rolls-Royce Dart engines of the Fokker F27 could be boosted by injecting a water-methanol mixture into the “hot section” of the engines. Particularly important for “hot and high” operations. When needed, the system would be armed and when the power was set to full take-off power (past a certain detent on the power levers) the water-meth would be sprayed into the turbines.
    The evaporating mixture expanded and the steam gave an extra boost.
    But that was not all: because it would cool the turbines, it was able to give another extra bit of oomph. A substantial increase.

    After 15 minutes, or reaching a safe altitude, the mixture would be switched off. So far, so good.

    But we had a lucrative contract in the Middle East, where there is a strict prohibition of the use of alcohol, at least for drinks.

    We needed to use W/M boost every take-off, even though we departed at night. It was very expensive, and besides it was an administrative nightmare for the company to get special permission to import the drums of methanol. If these rules were breached, very serious penalties, even lengthy jail sentences, could have been imposed.

    A special W/M saving procedure was devised; runways in Saudi Arabia are very long, often over 5000 metres.
    The W/M was needed not so much because of the runway length, but for the initial climb-out. We could always use an intersection for take-off. Of course we had the relevant performance tables at hand.

    So we would ask for a full-length take-off and when cleared start our roll with the power levers up to the first detent.
    This of course would not give anything even close to the required take-off power.
    But either at 60 kts, or the intersection from where we would be able to commence the take-off from standstill, we pushed the power all the way up to maximum.
    Water-meth would now be injected and full “wet” take-off power set.

    This procedure is not in the F27 handbook, but it meets all criteria.
    AND: It saved a lot of water, PLUS the precious methylated spirit.

    On the particular flight where I failed, let’s call her “Alice”, we needed W/M, but we did not have much left.
    The mechanics at our airport of arrival would be able to top it up, but I explained to “Alice” that we would not have any left in case of a missed approach at our destination.

    In my pre-flight briefing, I carefully explained this procedure to Alice.
    Her performance and skills had been excellent, there was no reason why she would not understand that we were not going to compromise safety and that I would be more than happy to defend it to any CAA inspector. But, as explained, she kept arguing right up to the holding point and even involved a positioning pilot on the jumpseat.

    Anyone willing to take this up? I don’t like acting the “heavy” and “Alice” had all the potential to become a very successful airline pilot, maybe even captain on a B77 or 747 except for what I saw as a character flaw.

    Sorry Sylvia if I got carried away.

    • If “Alice” might become a safe and reliable widebody captain, she represents a valuable resource that should be conserved if possible. If a salient character flaw is preventing her development, then, in my opinion, you have a custodial duty to the airline industry in general to eliminate that flaw. If the only thing that will get through to her is to fail her check, then fail her you must.

      “Alice” may think you are an unreasonable bully and hate you for the rest of her life, but some day she will not get into an argument with her flight crew and crash her 747 on takeoff.

  • Harrow,
    You hit the nail spot-on the head.
    This happened many years ago, I only recently found my copy of the report to the chief pilot with my reasons for failing her. I had kept it on file in case it would be needed. Now I could safely shred it.
    The flight when I failed “Alice” was not our first flight together. We got on well, and in all my reports I rated her maybe on 50 % of the issues as “S”, all the others were “S+” or “AS”. Issues were e.g. flight preparation, performance limitations, calculations, crew briefings, standard- and emergency procedures, general handling, crosswind, handling, precision- and non- precision approaches, landing techniques, that sort of items. And so it still is a sour point that, on our last flight, I had to fail her. Because the final item was not actually the only issue: already during taxi she was making comments like “with other captains we did it …, “(differently)”..Which is fine, as long as it does not conflict with SOP’s. No two flights are ever exactly the same.
    These sort of things should be left to a debriefing at the end of the flight. And that in the presence of a non-operating other pilot?

    I had a better moment with another pilot.
    He was Turkish, his family had moved to the Netherlands and his father had taken two jobs to finance his son’s training
    Ercan had been assigned to me after he had been failed by two other line training captains. I was his “last saloon”.
    I determined that the problem was not his ability, but cultural.
    As I explained in my first comment, in the Dutch systems there is (was?) no such thing as a second-in-command type rating. An aspiring F/O must conform to PIC standards, He or she is expected to be assertive. Not to the pint of undermining the captain’s authority, but what is called the “cockpit gradient” is supposed to be shallow. A “steep cockpit gradient” denotes a system where the captain is a sort of “skipper beside God”, a demi-god, with unassailable authority.
    And I soon realised that Ercan’s cultural background made him submissive. And worse: a failure would have meant a permanent shame, and a stain on his family.
    Our operation was mainly air cargo. The mother company had one F27 in executive configuration, mainly used for UN contracts. Only the Chief Pilot, his deputy and very senior FO’s with Swiss nationalities – the F27 for those operations was based in Geneva – were rostered to fly it..
    So we had a bit of leeway to incorporate some training in our flights.
    Like “limited panel” or a simulated loss of navigation equipment.
    In our version of the F27 the fire drill required as first step to silence the fire bell. The noise is very loud, accompanied by the flashing red fire master warning.
    Silencing the bell requires the captain to pull the circuit breaker – well marked to prevent confusion – on the panel behind the co-pilot’s seat to silence it. Unless (s)he is a contortionist, the pilot in the RH seat cannot reach it.
    I activated the test switch..
    So the alarm went off. I held the switch and Ercan very politely and meekly asked “would you please pull the circuit breaker, captain?”.
    I replied “I cannot hear you, the bell is too loud!”
    This was repeated, but the third time Ercan grabbed my right arm, pulled it in the direction behind his seat and shouted: “Pull the
    golddarned circuit breaker!”
    Immediately there was shock on his face, as he realised that he had shouted at his captain.
    But I started laughing, released the switch and we went through the (simulated) fire drill. Which he performed flawlessly.
    That was the moment when he got the message. I laughed again, and told him that this was exactly what he was supposed to have done.
    From there on, Ercan performed flawlessly. I passed him.
    The last time I heard from him was that he had become a captain on a feeder route of a major European carrier. Who knows what next?
    You see, I don’t want to fail anyone if he or she has the ability.
    As Harrow wrote, apart from a ruined career it also represents the loss of a potentially valuable asset to the industry.
    But there are limits.

  • A recent “on the road incident”:

    Two people have been killed after a private jet lost both engines and crashed onto a highway in Florida on Friday, authorities have said.

    Five people were aboard the Bombardier Challenger 600 when it came down about 3.15pm on Interstate 75 near the small city of Naples, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

    Airport spokesperson Robin King told AFP news agency that two minutes before the plane was scheduled to land at Naples Municipal Airport, the pilot radioed air traffic control and said he was requesting an emergency landing after losing both engines.

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