RIP flydubai FZ981

It is always harder when the accident is closer to home.

UAE airlines had not had a life-taking accident until this last week.

But in the early hours of 19th March a flydubai Boeing 737-800, registration A6-FDN performing flight FZ-981 from Dubai to Rostov on Don (Russia) crashed while landing. The airliner, which was carrying 55 passengers and 7 crew, had aborted its first approach to Rostov’s runway 22 at 01:41L (22:41Z) due to weather and entered a hold initially at 8000 feet After 30 minutes at 8000 feet the aircraft climbed to FL150. After about 2 hours of holding the aircraft commenced another approach to Rostov’s runway 22, winds from 240 degrees at 27 knots (14 metres/second) gusting 42 knots (22 m/s), the crew announced a go around.

However, the aircraft impacted the ground just off the runway at about 03:43L (00:43Z), broke up and burst into flames. There were no survivors.

The aircraft carried fuel for the trip, contingency, alternate, final fuel reserve (30 minutes) and additional holding for about 2:30 hours, total fuel for an endurance of about 8.5 hours. The aircraft had been airborne until time of impact for 06:02 hours.

The deep sense of sadness has hit everyone connected to Dubai’s economy driving aviation industry.

The airline’s CEO has asked that there be no speculation on the causes of the accident, saying that “we are aware that in the course of the past 24 hours there has been a great deal of speculation as to the cause of this tragedy. We share the desire to get answers as quickly as possible but at this stage we must not be drawn into speculation. We would ask that the investigating authorities are given the time and space they need to report definitively on the causes of the accident.”

But it inevitable that people talk about and try to find an explanation for the crash. It is also likely that the airline’s operating procedures will come under heavy scrutiny and this is something that airline management will seek to mitigate.

The captain was 38-year-old Aristos Sokratous, from Cyprus. It was his first flight to the airport of Rostov-on-Don. He had 5,965 hours of total flying time.

Sokatous had submitted his resignation to the airline, after accepting a job with Ryanair, which would allow him to be based with his family in Cyprus. His wife is due to give birth to their first child in the next few weeks.

The co-pilot, 37-year-old Alejandro Cruz Alava, was Spanish. He had 5,769 hours of flying time. He started his career with Flydubai two years ago having flown before for two regional airlines in the Spanish Canary Islands, Binter and Naysa.

At the time of the crash, wind speed in the vicinity ranged between 14–22 m/s (27–43 kn; 31–49 mph). Just before the crash, ATC reported to Flight 981 that wind direction was 230 degrees (more or less down the runnway), wind speed 12 m/s (23 kn; 27 mph) with gusts to 18 m/s (35 kn; 40 mph), and visibility was 3,500 m (11,500 ft).

Russia measures windspeed in metres per second.

Ten minutes before Flight 981 was cleared for its first attempt to land, two other flights landed successfully at Rostov: S7 Airlines Flight 1159 (at 01:23 local time), and Ural Airlines Flight 2758 (at 01:28). Twelve minutes after Flight 981’s first aborted landing at 1:42 local time, after which it went into a holding pattern, Aeroflot Flight 1166 from Moscow Sheremetyevo made the first of three unsuccessful attempts to land at Rostov within the next 35 minutes before diverting to the nearby Krasnodar Airport, landing successfully there at 02:59 local time.

According to ATC communications published online the pilots advised (in their second approach) that that they were established on the localiser and continued their descent. Then at 5.5 kilometres (3.4 mi) before the runway threshold, when the aircraft was at 1500 feet, the pilots announced a go-around and climbed to an altitude of 4,050 ft (1,230 m). At that point the airliner began a rapid descent with a vertical speed reaching more than 21,000 ft/min crashing close to the runway less than a minute later, at 03:42 local time.

The pilots reported their intention to abort the landing with “Going around, Skydubai 981”. ATC advised Flight 981 to switch to another air traffic controller (“Skydubai 981, contact Rostov Radar on 121.2”). Flight 981 acknowledged this with “121.2, bye-bye”, which was their final transmission.

A simple timeline of events (times in UTC/Zulu):
17:45 FZ981 scheduled time of departure
18:22 FZ981 pushed back from Stand E18 at Dubai Airport
18:37 FZ981 commences takeoff from runway 30R at Dubai Airport
19:14 FZ981 reaches cruising altitude of FL360
22:16 FZ981 commences descent from FL360
22:20 FZ981 scheduled time of arrival
22:23 S71159 (an Airbus A319 from Moscow-Domodedovo) lands after it’s first approach to runway 22
22:28 U62758 (an Airbus A320 from Khudzhand) lands after it’s first approach to runway 22
22:39 FZ981 commences final approach to runway 22 at Rostov Airport
22:42 FZ981 aborts first approach at 1725 ft, 6.7 km short of the runway
22:49 FZ981 reaches 8000 feet and heads towards the northeast of the airport
22:54 SU1166 (a Sukhoi Superjet 100-95B from Moscow-Sheremetyevo) aborts the first approach to runway 22
23:07 SU1166 aborts the second approach to runway 22
23:17 SU1166 aborts the third approach to runway 22
23:20 SU1166 diverts towards Krasnodar
23:20 FZ982 scheduled time of return flight back to Dubai
23:27 FZ981 enters holding pattern at 15000 feet to the southeast of the airport
00:28 FZ981 leaves the holding pattern and descends for a second approach
00:36 FZ981 intercepts the runway 22 localizer at 10 NM from the runway
00:40 FZ981 aborts second approach at 1550 ft, 5.6 km short of the runway
00:41 FZ981 impacts airport terrain after a steep descent from 3975 feet

There are some revealing comments on PPRUNE that will no doubt be part of the Russian led investigation.

The trouble with the investigation is that a combination of powerful lawyers and influential figures and organisations will all be lobbying to deflect any liability or reputational damage.

One major question is why did the airliner not divert to its alternate airport?

On PPRUNE the suggestion is that “the 2 hours holding is standard FDB operations. We are routinely sent to somewhere we knew we couldn’t get into with little prospect of being able to get into it with boatloads of fuel and told give it a go. If you didn’t then you came under the scrutiny of the chief pilot who had a penchant for bullying crew and making careers untenable.”

This writer is clearly familiar with FDB operations and added that “the route they were flying was not one that more senior pilots would ever pick as it is known for crap weather, is captain only landing and its dark o’clock. It was just one of those places that you hoped to not get on your roster and if you did and if you couldn’t swap it then you hoped you had one of those nights where there was a break in the crap weather and you could get in. If not you rocked up with extra stuff as you knew you could easily end up in a hotel.”

For pilots flydubai is a stepping zone, not a career; this is where  you build up money, hours and left-hand-seat experience before moving to somewhere else.

Again details will emerge soon, but it appears that the captain flew to India the previous night, another long night flight. He would have certainly been tired.

One quick read of the flydubai thread on the middle east PPRUNE forum shows many posts addressing fatigue and rostering.

Commenting on FZ981 a former FZ pilot on PPRUNE noted that “the last 5 mins of the flight are indeed very important for many reasons but whatever those reasons be they act of god, mishandling, catastrophic failure they were made possible by the launch of the aircraft from base in weather in which they not only predicted not to be able to land but was predicted for the entire duration of their fuel to be highly unlikely to allow them to do so.”

This issue may not be so much why did the pilots not divert but why was the flight even dispatched in the first place?

Russia Today is the first media outlet to write in detail about fatique issues at flydubai. A former pilot saying that “It’s ridiculous that there’s been an aviation industry for so long and this stuff is still going on. And you hear about people being worked to death. I had some months at Flydubai where I really felt like I was being worked to death. And I just couldn’t do it. [People] buy an airplane ticket and they assume that they are safe on the airplane, but the way that an airline like Flydubai rosters their pilots, it’s not safe. It’s not safe at all.”

The full Russia Today report on pilot fatique at flydubai

It is desperately sad that so many people lost their lives that night. Families and friends, and anyone who cares about aviation in this region, have to hope that the investigation is swift and thorough; and that recommendations are comprehensive and get to the real core of operating procedures and the effectiveness of the regulators.

flydubai will never be the same again. My heart goes out to the families of the crew and passengers and to their friends and colleagues at flydubai who are trying to do their job as normal at a time when nothing is normal.




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