“Completely Uncontrollable” : Air Astana flight from hell
On the 11th of November, an Air Astana ferry flight out of Lisbon almost ended in tragedy. The ATC recordings are almost unbelievable and I recommend listening to the whole thing (audio and transcripts are below but if you are reading this as an email, you may need to click through to the post to get them).
Air Astana is the flag carrier of the Republic of Kazakhstan which operates out of Astana International Airport and Almaty International Airport.
In 2009, an audit by the ICAO found that the Kazakhstan Civil Aviation Committee (CAC) to be non-compliant when it came to regulatory oversight. As a result all Kazakhstan-registered airlines were banned from flying to, from or within the European Union with the exception of Air Astana, whose aircraft were registered in Aruba and who presented a strong operations safety management programme. Air Astana was the only Kazakh airline to fly to the European Union until the ban was lifted in 2016; however only their Boeing and Airbus fleet was allowed to operate in the EU until December 2015, when the restriction on their Embraer aircraft was lifted.
The Portuguese Aviation Accidents Prevention and Investigation Department (GPIAA) released an information bulletin on Tuesday, which is where I have picked up the sequence of events.
The aircraft was a five-year-old Embraer 190 registration P4-KCJ which had undergone maintenance at Lisbon aviation technical centre (C-check).
Here’s the first half of the ATC audio and transcript by VASaviation.
At 13:33 local time (GMT) the aircraft departed Alverca do Ribatejo airbase for a ferry flight to Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, with a scheduled stop at Minsk, Belarus, for refuelling. There were three flight crew and three technicians on board the flight.
The weather was poor, with thunderstorms in the area. This is apparently an animation of the weather at the time of the flight:
Immediately after take off, the flight crew found that the aircraft was not responding well. The wings began to oscillate. They attempted to counter the oscillations but without knowing what was causing them, the flight crew were only able to minimize the oscillatory movements. They became concerned about the high structural loads they were imposing on the aircraft.
They declared an emergency and requested a return to the airport while struggling to gain control. There were no malfunction indications other than the continuous alerts for abnormal flight attitudes.
The controller asked them to descend to 2,500 feet but the flight crew responded with “Negative”. From there, the flight control issues can be seen simply by looking at the flight path.
The crew repeatedly lost control as they sustained intense G-forces. They requested vectors out to sea so that they could ditch the aircraft there. However, they were unable to keep to the headings. All the while, the three crew worked together and with the technicians on board in order to troubleshoot the issue and find some plan of action. Flying through a thunderstorm, they could not find any other option than to ditch, while ATC informed them that they would not reach the sea but could attempt to ditch in a river.
To follow along, here’s part 2 of the VASAviation ATC transcript:
They deactivated the flight controls direct mode, removing the Flight Control Module from the flight surfaces command chain, taking direct control of the elevators, rudder and spoilers. This improved their control however they were still struggling to control the aircraft roll-axis and ATC warned them that they were flying away from the sea and into Spanish territory.
It became clear that the ailerons were behaving erratically: by avoiding their use, the flight crew could keep the roll to a minimum. They were finally able to control the aircraft’s altitude and heading and flew east to find better weather and visual conditions. A pair of F-16s from the Portuguese Airforce flew alongside them to guide them south to Beja airport, about 125 km south-east of Lisbon.
The flight crew broke off the first two approaches for runway 19R, the first for not being aligned with the runway and the second as they were too high. On the third attempt, they were unable to control their drift but successfully landed on the left runway (19L) at 15:26.
After two hours of struggling, they were safe on the ground.
One of the passengers suffered a leg injury and all of them were physically and emotionally shaken. Two of the crew were taken to Beja hospital to be treated for shock.
Here’s a video of the landing, taken by one of the F-16s:
And one more video, taken from the ground as the aircraft came in on its final approach:
The Portuguese Aviation Accidents Prevention and Investigation Department (GPIAA) is holding the aircraft pending further investigation. Embraer and Air Astana have sent specialists to support the investigation. The initial evidence points to a failure of the “aircraft roll controls configuration” which probably took place during the maintenance. This sounds to me like cables were crossed, resulting in reversed controls.
Whatever the issue turns out to be, that was an amazing job carried out by the flight crew for an incident that could easily have resulted in a crash directly after take-off. When I saw the video of them landing, I wanted to applaud.