Obsolete equipment cited as factor in air crash
The cause of the Afriqiyah Airways crash near Tripoli remains unknown. But why didn't the Airbus land on the runway outfitted with the most advanced navigation equipment?
Much remains unknown about Wednesday’s crash of Afriqiyah Airways' Airbus A330, which killed 103 people including 70 Dutch nationals. But it has become clear that the crash took place near Tripoli International Airport's runway 09, which is not outfitted with modern navigation equipment. Weather conditions above the airport were very poor at the time of the crash, said an Afriqiyah staff member. Low-hanging clowds had reduced visibility.
Benno Baksteen, a former pilot who now chairs a Dutch aviation association, said he wondered why the plane had not landed instead on runway 27, which is equipped with more advanced navigation aids. "That would have made more sense," Baksteen said. "It would also have put them closer to the passenger terminal."
Afriqiyah Airways staff remain puzzled by the same question.
The most sophisticated navigation aid used for aircraft landings is the Instrument Landing System (ILS), used, for example, on all of the runways at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. The most advanced version allows aircraft to land at a visibility of only 70 metres.
Air traffic control blamed
At Tripoli’s airport, runway 27 has also been equipped with ILS, albeit not its latest version. The Tripoli system guides aircrafts to an altitude of 60 metres, after which the pilot has to manually complete his landing.
An Afriqiyah Airways staff member, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Tripoli air traffic control always directed morning arrivals towards runway 09, regardless of wind conditions or the availability of the other runway. The reason, the source claimed, was that aircrafts descending towards runway 27 arrive from the east. As the air traffic controllers prefer to avoid staring directly into the morning sun, they direct the pilots to the outdated runway, which lies on the same tarmac, but runs in the opposite direction.
Many at Afriqiyah Airways have been unhappy with this situation for quite some time, the staff member said. Not because it leaves the approaching pilots staring directly into the rising sun, but because runway 09 has only been equipped with older navigational aids called Non Directional Beacons (NDB). "Runway 09 is terrible," the Afriqiyah employee said. "Even compared to the rest of Africa."
On Wednesday morning, an additional factor complicated matters. Low-hanging clouds had apparently reduced visibility immediately above the airport, making it even more difficult to land on runway 09. A pilot who landed on the same airstrip minutes before flight 8U771 is said to have warned his colleague about the situation before the plane crashed. Allegedly, he even recommended that the pilot request a different runway. The control tower's only response, it appears, was a request to stand by. "They always do that,"" the Afriqiyah employee said. "It means you can wait for all eternity." Libyan authorities were unavailable for comment on the issue on Thursday.
Weather reports: visibility sufficient
Official weather reports, however, do not confirm the reports of poor conditions. Official visibility at the time of the crash was 5,000 metres. The reports also fail to mention any cloud coverage. Another weather report, issued 25 minutes after the crash, does state that visibility had by then been reduced to 2,000 metres.
"The weather was getting worse," Baksteen said. "But visibility was still sufficient." To land on runway 09, a minimum visibility of 1,600 metres is required. Baksteen said it was possible very low-hanging clouds failed to register on meteorological services' sensors.
Dutch pilots said that an NDB-assisted landing wasn't necessarily dangerous, even at reduced visibility. A pilot who passed through Tripoli airport as recently as six months ago, said he did not have any negative experiences. "I feel that air traffic control there is reliable. Lufthansa and British Airways both frequent the airport. Precision landings, like the ones carried out at Schiphol airport, are impossible there, but that doesn't mean it is unsafe. Clouds or sandstorms could complicate matters, but I have never experienced either," the pilot said.
On Thursday, a British employee posted a message on an online aviation forum describing Afriqiyah Airways – a small airline – as a place where everybody knew each other personally and camaraderie was the norm. The crashed captain, Yousif Al Ssady (1953), had a very good reputation. "Everybody wanted to fly with him," an Afriqiyah staffer interviewed said. Al Ssady learned his trade at the British Oxford Aviation Academy.
Afriqiyah Airways is awash with speculation regarding the cause of the crash. An oft-cited rumour is that the pilot was in the midst of a go-around procedure to reattempt landing, and hit a tower supporting overhead power lines. Afriqiyah's legal affairs manager said he knew nothing of such an incident. He called the possibility that low-hanging clouds had caused the crash "remote".
Officially, more facts will only emerge after Libyan authorities have analysed the information stored on the aircraft's flight data recorder. The inquiry into the crash began on Thursday, but it could take weeks to complete. When a Turkish Airlines aircraft crashed near Amsterdam's Schiphol airport in February last year it took eight days before a first official report was issued. A definitive report wasn't published until last week.