This article was first published on Linkedin January 2019
It was a little after 01.30 am on a cold winters evening. It was fairly peaceful, with just the sound of a lone jet aircraft approaching one of the UK’s busiest airports, London Gatwick. As it crossed the A23, and barely 2 miles from touchdown onto Runway 27, the unthinkable happened. The aircraft smashed into a home, killing two of its three occupants, before catching fire itself. In the 50 years since air travel safety has improved massively. However, there are still lessons to learn from the crash of Ariana 701.
The Day Begins
Ariana 701’s day began in Kabul. The Afghan airline was scheduled to fly from Kabul to London, via Kandahar, Beirut, Istanbul and Frankfurt. A crew change was planned at Beirut, with Captain Rahim Nowroz taking over command of the flight for the onward journey to London.
The aircraft was a relatively new Boeing 727-112C, with the C denoting the aircraft’s ability to operate with a part passenger, part cargo operations. The Airline had bought the aircraft from Boeing in 1968, with its entry into service beginning sometime after May 14th, 1968. In the preceding 8 months, the aircraft built up a total of 1715 flight hours.
Joining Captain Nowroz was First officer Abdul Zahir Attayee and flight engineer Mohammed Hussain Furmuly. No one in the crew was over 40, with The captain being the eldest at age 37. Leaving Beirut, the next few sectors were uneventful, with just a single issue on approach to Frankfurt. The ‘stabiliser out of trim’ warning lit up as the aircraft settled on the ILS. The issue was short-lived as the First officer, who was operating as the pilot flying at the time, disconnected the autopilot, retrimmed the aircraft manually and continued the approach without incident. Once on the ground, a note was made in the tech log.
For the final leg to Gatwick, Captain Nowroz would operate as the pilot flying. Scheduled take off was around 0030Z with an estimated flight time of just 70 minutes. Checking the weather at their destination, the crew found that Gatwick was shrouded in thick fog, with visibility of just 100m on the ground. The fog was intermittent, however, with Heathrow reporting unlimited visibility. The captain, having flown into Gatwick many times, knew that the fog at Gatwick could disperse whilst they were in flight. However, being cautious, he filed a flight plan with London Stansted as an alternate and fuelled the aircraft with enough fuel to return to Frankfurt if needed. Stansted was reporting 2km visibility.
At just after 0035Z, the 727 left Frankfurt and made for Gatwick.
Belgium Control – 0113Z
At 0113Z, the aircraft was cruising at FL280 as it approached the Belgian coast. At this point, they switched to London Control and began its descent into Gatwick. London Control advises the crew that Gatwick’s visibility instil, just 100 meters. The captain replies, “Roger, we are trying … er … to Gatwick, we’ll see later.” He repeats that he’s trying Gatwick and the aircraft is cleared to the Mayfield NDB. At 0120Z, the controller again advises 701 of the runway conditions at Gatwick.
“Gatwick visual range is 100 metres. Runway 27 is the Runway to be used”
The Captain acknowledges that the runway in use and is then cleared down to 8000ft.
Three minutes later and the controller once again advises 701 of the conditions at Gatwick.
“701, London. I just checked Gatwick. The runway remains … the range remains at … er … 100 metres and there’s no sign of improvement at the moment.”
Again, the captain replies. “We’ll try Gatwick … er … if we cannot make it at Gatwick will it be OK if we go to Heathrow?”
The controller acknowledges the reply and clears 701 down to 5000ft and gives it a direct course for the Mayfield VOR. With the course set to the Mayfield VOR, the aircraft passes to the north of the coast. The weather is still crystal clear though on picking up the approach controller at Gatwick, conditions have still not improved. The controller advises that the meteorological visibility is now just 50 meters in the freezing fog. While the runway visual range is still 100 meters.
The captain acknowledges the barometric setting and runway number, but little else.
From the approach controllers view, he expected a quiet night as the current conditions sat below the then UK minimum of an RVR of 200. Concerned by 701’s plans, he doublechecks their intentions.
“Er … 701, do you wish to make an approach?”
“That’s affirmative.” is the only reply received. As such the controller clears the 727 down to just 2000ft. Still, the approach controller is concerned, so as an extra precaution, he instructs the inbound aircraft that in the event of an overshoot, they should climb to 2000ft and fly the runway heading.
Approach to runway 27
Inside the cockpit, the workload has increased. The captain asks for the current flap setting, with the co-pilot replying ‘flaps 15, glideslope alive.’
The crew are now just 8 miles from touchdown. The approach controller clears them for landing and again, advises the crew that the RVR is just 100m.
For the crew, they spot a single red light ahead, taking it for the runway beacon.
“Yeah, that’s the light at the end of 09” the captain announces. It was, in fact, an obstacle light on Russ Hill. With an airspeed of 167kts, the flaps are set to 30.
Suddenly, the copilot calls out 400 ft. It should have been at 500 and the 400 callout is rushed. Equally surprised, the captain queries it. From here the sickening realisation that something wasn’t right was sinking in. Quickly, the captain trimmed the aircraft’s nose up, but there was no response. Attempts to raise the nose proved difficult. The control columns barely moved backwards and the 727 was heavy. Finally, go around was called, but it was too late. The aircraft had continued descending, and at a little after 01.33, the aircraft began to brush the trees below and knocked a chimney pot from a roof. A tree tore off a section of the starboard wing, sending the aircraft into a roll. It struck a house, killing new parents, The Jones’s. They’re baby miraculously survived, having been protected as the house crumbled. 50 people died, while 15 people survived, including the cockpit crew.
The post-crash investigation began immediately, and the crew, having survived, quickly became the focus of the investigation, with a particular interest in the captain. Delving into his records, a picture emerged of a man who didn’t like to delegate simpler tasks. During his training for the B727, it was noted that Captain Nowroz ‘tended to do routine duties on the flight deck himself at the expense of ‘handling the controls’. Indeed, it was clear that the Captain was operating the flight as PIC, but he was also busy working the radios. This left the co-pilot uncertain of his role within the cockpit.
Then there was the decision to land at Gatwick. The visibility was incredibly poor, and if Ariana had been a U.K. carrier, they would have been precluded by law from landing in such low visibility. The law didn’t extend to foreign airlines and so the captain was free to make the approach. That said, it was clear the captain had lots of other options. Heathrow, just 10 minutes flight time further away, was sitting with unlimited visibility, as they’re chosen diversion airport at Stansted. Captain Nowroz continued on though. Despite the poor conditions at Gatwick, the 727 was more than capable of landing and the ILS system was in perfect working order.
So why did the crew fly the aircraft into the ground? That answer comes from the captain himself. Captain Nowroz was PIC but also operating the radios and performing the routine things that would generally be the preserve of the PNF. The co-pilot, without a clear role to follow, was effectively sidelined. As the approach commenced, and the co-pilot, certain his captain was in control, failed to monitor the aircraft’s speed and altitude. Both pilots were concentrating on the view out of the window as the fog enveloped the aircraft. The flaps were set on the captain’s orders, but neither pilot was monitoring the airspeed. Flaps 2 was called at 223kts, 23kts above the recommended deployment speed. Likewise, flaps 5 was set at 200kts rather than the 180kts. By the time flaps, 15 was called the speed was just 6 kts above the maximum recommended speed. The slowest speed the aircraft reached was just 143kts. By the time the gear was lowered, the speed had risen to 176kts.
The Autopilot was flying the glideslope as the aircraft approached Gatwick, but with the speed increasing with the flaps fully deployed, the autopilot struggled to trim the aircraft and adjust for the extra lift. Eventually, the ‘stabiliser out of trim’ lit, and Captain Nowroz mistook this as a recurrence of the same problem the crew had seen on the approach to Frankfurt.
By the time the Copilot called 400ft, neither pilot knew the true state of the aircraft or their position on the approach. If they had noticed just 30 seconds prior to this, the application of full power and pitching the aircraft nose up would have been effective. Sadly the call to ‘go around’ came too late. The engines took 8 seconds to spool up to full power, but the aircraft had already begun brushing the trees.
50 years on.
The crash is a perfect example of what today would be called ‘a lack of crew resource management’. Communication between the crew lacking, and with the captain not using his crew effectively, the final flight that evening was always heading for disaster. Most striking was the commanders’ decision to land at Gatwick at all. He had options and ATC checked several times that the captain was sure he wanted to proceed to Gatwick. Captain Nowroz never really came to a decision and the crew found themselves on an approach that neither pilot was certain was right. They almost disbelieved the reports of poor visibility at Gatwick. The reports from Heathrow and Stansted may have painted a false picture that the fog was a temporary thing. The run along the south coast, that was clear of fog just reinforced the impression that all would be well. If the crew had been working as they would be today, the crash would not have happened. So the lessons from the crash of Ariana 701 still resonate today. Had the co-pilot monitored the speed alongside the captain, and the flaps had been lowered at the correct speeds, the Boeing 727 would have landed without incident, and perhaps that’s the saddest fact of all.