Musings on Emirates’ EK521 crash landing


An Emirates 777-300 in a press photo provided by the company

Just after mid-day local time Emirates’ flight EK521 caught fire after landing at Dubai International Airport. Details about why the plane landed as it did will be forthcoming over the next several hours and days but at first blush I have a few observations about the incident.

ATC Audio

I really hope the ATC audio quality for the pilots was better than what I heard in the recording pulled from LiveATC.net. That said, I continue to be amazed at the calm professionalism displayed by ATC operators in the face of massive stress and challenges. I transcribed relevant bits of the communication on Twitter earlier and am included some of that below. Perhaps most significant to me was the “please” used by the controller at one point in indicating that the fire trucks could proceed to the aircraft.

Go Around

Also in the audio is an almost unintelligible “4000” mentioned by ATC about 80 seconds after the plane had been cleared to land. That call is consistent (as best I can tell from the horrible audio quality) with the “go around” called for the following plane, suggesting that EK521 was intending to abort the landing at that point. Obviously that aborted landing didn’t work out so well. Other sources appear to be confirming that the plane was trying to gain altitude so, again, consistent with the idea of a failed “go around” for the flight. I imagine that will be a significant focus of the investigation.

Everyone walked away

This is, to me, the most significant thing about the incident. Everyone evacuated the aircraft safely. All 282 passengers on board and 18 crew were off before the flames caused the damage we now see in photos. That’s a combination of the incredible engineering which goes into building the planes and the training and professionalism of the crews in getting passengers out, among other things.

This also is believed to be the first real world evac of a 777 in 3-4-3 layout. The flight was only loaded to ~75% so not completely full but the tighter personal space on board did not – at least in the obvious, macro view – cause issues for emergency egress. And that was with a mix of real world people doing the evac very much under threatening conditions. Not a perfect test, but a pretty good vote of confidence. Which sucks if you want to see more personal space given to economy travelers but such is life.

Also, some asshats took their carry-on bags with them during the evacuation. Not surprising, unfortunately, but it happened. We are fortunate to not have any injuries or fatalities to report as a result of the slowed evac, but seeing that always bothers me. Passport and phone in your pocket, shoes on for take-off and landing. Everything else stays behind.

Crisis Comms

It helps that the event happened mid-day local time on a work day, to be sure, but the company was spectacularly quick to respond with official statements and useful updates. Yes, there were revisions along the way (passenger count increased by ~25 from the first to second statement) but the overall tone and control of the message was strong. That they had the CEO on camera, speaking with confidence and real information in multiple languages less than four hours after the accident is important.

Dealing with this sort of incident is not easy. But Emirates is almost making it look so. It is impressive.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

23 Comments

  1. My friend was crew on the plane I don’t think even he knew what happened. Very proud of him for getting everyone to safety

  2. Seth, what is even more impressive in my opinion is the way the traffic flow was handled. All inbound flights to DXB were immediately rerouted with primary diversion points DWC and SHJ. Only 5 flights diverted to other UAE airports – 2 to Fujairah and 3 to Al Ain (although some aircraft did divert to Bahrain, Kuwait, Muscat or turned back to origin points). The airport was immediately NOTAMed closed and all inbound FPLs for arrivals within 4 hours were rejected for aircraft not already airborne. As a result, the disruption to aircraft, passengers and crew has been absolutely minimal.

    Our team up the road from DXB in Ras Al Khaimah were activated to standby for diversions after the incident, but in the end we only came close to getting a single flight (which went to DWC in the end anyway). This was a textbook emergency response and contingency planning executed perfectly. We get more drama here with a little bit of fog or rain.

    1. Mark, our ramp space limits what we can take. We have 4 ex-Emirates A330s here now awaiting new homes (DAE leases) plus with Air Arabia, Qatar Airways and Air India Express scheduled flights we can only handle 3-4 narrowbody diversions and maybe 2 widebodies.

    2. Keep up the great work Sean. If we didn’t have folks like you giving it your best, we’re really be in a spot. How you folks doing on people there?.

    3. All hands on deck. We’re better prepared with folks on standby to reinforce tonight if needed, but most of the narrow body operators have proactively cancelled into DXB tonight.

    4. Hell, i can imagine the insanity there. Just a phase bud; we’re all very grateful to the efforts you guys over at RAK, Sharjah, Minhad and Abu Dhabi are putting in. Stunning deployment and thanks to folks like you who keep the place running like a well oiled machine,

    5. Hey Sean,

      You often have a very knowledgeable, and accurate perspective on many things. I’ve noticed your comments on other blogs as well. Especially when it comes to aviation/life in the Mideast. Having grown up as an expat in the Mideast (Bahrain) I find your comments very interesting.

      P. L

  3. I have to evacuate a plane once and the gal next to me tried to get her bag, that was so heavy she barely could get it ON the plane, off with her. When I saw her reach for it I said in a strong voice “Leave that F’ing bag where it is.” She looked at me and I said “Move! Now!” (I have dropped the F-bomb maybe 4 times in my adult life, but sometimes nothing else works)

    No fire, everyone got off the plane. Carry-ons connected with us a couple of hours later.

  4. Interesting perspective. If Ben S. had written it the entire article would center around himself and musing as to if he would’ve been ‘deplaned’ first because of his status. ?

  5. One of the findings of the AF358 crash in Toronto (where everyone escaped alive) was the challenge of people taking carry-on with them. Can’t think of an easy fix. Given the rarity of the event criminal charges are laughable. Peer pressure is the only work around I think.

  6. For the evacuation to be successful, everyone must have been completely evacuated within 90 seconds.

    Does anyone know if the standard was achieved or was this yet another failed evacuation?

  7. I have often wondered why they don’t design the carry-on bin doors to lock during takeoff and landing, similar to how some car doors automatically lock when you put the transmission in gear. Even during normal flights, sometimes the doors can fling open (due to rough turbulence or whatever during ascent/descent) and stuff can fall out. Locked bins might help prevent morons from taking their bags during an emergency evacuation.

    1. Excellent comment by Erik – they should lock the overheads during takeoff and landing. I totally agree.

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