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EMIRATES Airlines is in damage control after a flight with 275 passengers and crew came within seconds of a disastrous crash at Melbourne Airport because a pilot punched the wrong numbers into a computer.
The airline has stepped up its safety procedures and sent a team of top executives to Australia to reassure transport officials as the error was revealed yesterday by Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigators.
The Airbus passenger jet was struggling to get off the ground and perilously close to crashing with a full load of fuel when its captain used an emergency system to override the automated power settings. By that time the plane was blasting towards the end of the runway and travelling at close to 300km/h.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau's director of Aviation Safety Investigations, Julian Walsh, said yesterday somebody in the cockpit fed into the computer a weight for the aircraft that was 100 tonnes lighter than its actual weight of 362 tonnes. That meant that the aircraft computer applied vastly less power than was needed for the plane to climb safely off the runway.
The co-pilot was flying the plane and even through the captain applied emergency power the Airbus' tail hit the runway three times.
It damaged runway lights and an undercarriage wheel smashed into the instrument landing system antenna at the end of the runway.
Then it scraped a grass run-off area twice at high speed.
The crew dumped fuel and returned to land safely at Melbourne Airport. No one was injured.
Mr Walsh rejected as absolutely untrue claims that the pilot used inadequate fuel in response to an Emirates instruction to save money or that the pilots were fatigued from long hours and lack of sleep.
Releasing a preliminary report in Canberra, Mr Walsh said the investigation would now focus on the human factors of why the wrong numbers were fed into the laptop computer known as an "electronic flight bag".
The investigation would be a lengthy one, Mr Walsh said.
But he would not say how close Flight EK-407 came to disaster. "Speculating on how close it came to crashing is not really that useful," Mr Walsh said.
"We all recognise this was definitely a very serious event."
He said there was no indication of any problem with the aircraft.
"We know why the aircraft had the problem. It is because this weight was incorrect," Mr Walsh said. He said ground despatchers had given the crew the correct numbers and the investigators were trying to find out how the incorrect numbers were punched in.
Emirates officials said last night the airline had immediately installed a back-up laptop in the cockpits of its aircraft to prevent a repeat of the incident.
The officials said the airline was conducting its own inquiry to find out how the mistake was made and to stop it happening again.
They said a decision would be made soon on whether the aircraft would be repaired in Melbourne or flown to France for repairs.
Emirates said the safety of passengers, crew and aircraft was its top priority and the incident was being treated very seriously at the highest levels of the company.
The airline said the aircraft was making a reduced power take-off, but that would normally involve a 15 per cent power safety margin.
The two pilots resigned soon after returning to Dubai.