Emirates A380 – Why so low, bro?

On December 4, 2017, an Emirates A380 flying EK207 (Dubai to New York JFK) had a close call on approach.

The aircraft, A6-EEU, was nearing the end of its 14 hour flight from Dubai when it came dangerously low on approach, with still about 5 km left before the threshold of runway 13L. The aircraft was following the Canarsie approach, which requires a sharp 90 degree turn on very short final. According to reports from the Aviation Herald, the aircraft was alerted by air traffic control that  “you appear to be extremely low on approach”. The crew responded with a missed approach and climbed out, positioning themselves for an approach to 22L, which was completed safely. 

So how low were they?

We looked at the ADS-B data, shown above with altitude marked on it. During the sharp turn for 13L, the appear on ADS-B to be at zero feet. According to Aviation Herald,

The FAA radar data suggest the aircraft was at 200 feet AGL at the lowest point. The Webtrak data produced by the airport authority show the aircraft at 338 feet MSL at its lowest point.”

Although ADS-B data shows zero feet as the calibrated altitude, we must add about 460 ft to that to allow for atmospheric pressure of 30.43 inches at the time. Either ways, the jet was below 500 ft, almost 5km (or 3 miles) from the runway.

Consider for a moment that the wingspan of an A380 is 262 ft. That means that tip of each wing is approximately 131 ft from the centre of the fuselage. If the aircraft was at 200 ft AGL and in the middle of a sharp 90 degree turn, this means that the tip of the starboard wing was actually much closer to the ground than 200 ft. At this point, the aircraft was near the Aqueduct Raceway.

As with any close call, there are many what if scenarios and questions to be asked: what would have happened if ATC did not warn them about their low approach? Would the pilots have noticed their abnormally low altitude? Was there no cockpit call out for 1000 ft and then 500 ft?

This isn’t the first time an Emirates A380 has come dangerously low – in September, an A380 landing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport came down to 400ft about 8nm from the runway. The crew landed safely after two missed approaches. The aviation herald quotes the GCAA (UAE’s Civil Aviation Authority) as saying:

“During the approach, the aircraft descended to 400 ft, approximately 7.5 Nm inbound on the runway while attempting to intercept the ILS for landing. The EGPWS alerted the pilots and the crew aborted the landing. A second approach was unsuccessful and aborted. The aircraft landed safely on the third approach.”

It is hard not to think of some of the articles and interviews that surfaced after the FlyDubai and Emirates crashes, with pilots talking about extensive fatigue. In a 2016 article, UK’s Guardian newspaper reported: “The Guardian has seen the air safety reports of 413 Flydubai flights written in the two-month period. In more than 40 reports, pilots describe concerns about fatigue. In some cases they complain about being urged to work overtime – so-called “discretion” flying – when they have warned it could be unsafe to do so.”

RT also published an article on UAE pilot fatigue, and the following quotes are alarming to say the least:

“The pilots at FlyDubai and Emirates are dangerously tired, and if you call in sick or sick fatigue you run the gauntlet of being delayed in your upgrade, which to a pilot is a slap at his profession and life, or reprimanded like a child and treated like a slave or non-professional,” the pilot said.

“Another pilot, who is still working for Emirates, described several tactics used by the airline to intimidate employees into keeping mum about feeling tired. He told RT that, to keep their pilots from reporting their exhaustion, Emirates allegedly uses the threat of an internal investigation, which involves endless additional examinations for depression and other illnesses not related to fatigue.”

When these publications approached the airlines for comment, the airlines maintained that safety and regulations are never compromised and that due to the anonymous nature of the interviews, they are unable to comment on them.

Hopefully, the FAA and GCAA will conduct their investigations into the EK207 incident, letting us know more, and more importantly, letting Emirates and maybe Airbus know what needs to be done.