18-Oct-2011: The skies were clear and blue, and the winds calm when Capt Hooshang Shabazi and his crew accepted their aircraft, a Boeing 727-200 registered EP-IRR, from the crew that had flown it all the way from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport (IATA: IKA, ICAO: OIIE) to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. They were prepared to fly south over 2500km, back to their home in Tehran. 94 revenue passengers, of which 80% were Russian, and the rest Iranian, and 19 crew, occupied the 157 seat airplane, resulting in a takeoff weight of 176,000lbs.
The four hour flight to IKA from Moscow was coming to an end. Capt Shabazi and his crew had left FL370, screaming towards Tehran at Mach 0.8 in their 37 year old Boeing 727-200. The flight was uneventful, and the weather delightful. Winds were calm, and conditions and visibility were okay. 25 nautical miles from IKA, at 9000ft and on extremely long finals, Capt Shabazi, the pilot in command, requested for the gear to be extended. And that was when the normalcy in the flight ended: the cockpit gear indicator showed the two main gear extended, but the nose gear still retracted.
With ample time on the finals, the crew recycled the gear twice. The indicator was still stubborn: two green and one red. Iran Air 743 performed a go-around. With an element of doubt and an iota of hope, Capt Shabazi brought his 727 for a low pass over the airfield, where ATC and Maintenance personnel on the ground confirmed his fears: the nose landing gear was still retracted.
Captain Hooshang Shabazi has an experience quite unlike most pilots in the world. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and has been on all three seats in the Boeing 727 cockpit: As a flight engineer, a first officer, and a commander. His unique “classic” experience of 15,000hrs in the cockpit breaks down as follows: 7000 hours on the Boeing 727 and A300 as a flight engineer, and 6400hrs on the 707, 727, 747-200 and -SP, and A300 as a first officer and 1600hrs on the 727-200 as captain. Despite this, the one red light corresponding to the nose landing gear was something he had never experienced before.
Iran Air’s 727 crew are sent to Kuala Lumpur for their simulators. Emergencies of all kinds are practiced, but then there also are emergencies considered “remote”, such as partial gear up landings, which are practiced only once every three years. However, the partial gear landings in the simulator cover only the main landing gears; to land without a nose gear was something Shabazi wasn’t prepared for.
Assisting Capt Shabazi was Capt Aghdaie and Flight Engineer Drakhshande. The crew flew the aircraft to the RUS VOR, where, entering the hold, the emergency checklists and the quick reference manual were pulled out. Giving one last try at the gear, the crew attempted a gravity-gear extension. The main landing gears fell into place. The nose gear was still in the wheel bay, confirmed by Drakhshande who used a viewer in the cockpit to check the position of the nose gear.
Capt Shabazi and his crew considered their options. They had to land the aircraft without the nose gear, but the question was, where. Landing at IKA would have many implications. Fire fighting facilities are present, but they could do better. IKA has two runways, of which only one is open. The other runway has been closed, and so landing at IKA would mean blocking the sole operational runway for the numerous international flights that service Tehran.
18nm from IKA is Mehrabad International Airport (IATA: THR, ICAO: OIII), which is the home base of Iran Air. Maintenance facilities are present, the fire fighting facilities are better, and the best of all: two runways are available. Closing one would still keep THR open for any aircraft that may need it. This airfield was the option Capt Hooshang and his crew settled for, after some deliberation.
Having taken off from Russia with a block fuel of 60,000lbs, Iran Air 743 was a bit too heavy for the feat that Capt Shabazi was committed to. 20 minutes after holding over RUS, the crew flew 23NM at the transition altitude of 9000ft to the KAZ NDB away where they again entered a hold, completing the holding pattern three times just so that the excess fuel was burnt off till the minimum fuel of about 5,200 lbs was reached. Satisfied with the fact that the aircraft was made light, fuel reduced to minimum to reduce the chances of a fire, the checklists completed, and the actions discussed in a wonderful example of CRM, Capt Shabazi exited the hold, heading downwind for the feat he was mentally preparing himself for: landing on the 13,248ft long runway 29L of THR without the nose wheel.
Thoughts were rushing in his head. What if the aircraft veered out of control? What if the aircraft rolled into a fireball on the runway? What if things didn’t go as planned? Despite these thoughts, Capt Shabazi kept himself very cool. “It’s very hard up there, and the pressure of the situation doesn’t help one bit”.
With a final approach speed of 123 kts, flaps extended to 40 degrees, and a prayer on his lips. Capt Shabazi and his crew, who had informed the crew to brace for an emergency, approached runway 29L. He touched down very smoothly, and kept the nose up. Reversers were gently applied, spoilers were deployed, and the rudder was used to stay on the centreline. Cautious about not losing elevator authority, Capt Shabazi started gently lowering the nose at 60kts indicated airspeed. The nose came down slow, and with just 60 kts to lose, the nose didn’t run along the runway for long. Using differential braking, he maintained the nose on the centreline.
As soon as the aircraft came to a stop, engines were shutdown, and the evacuation initiated. Within 33 seconds of receiving the command form the flight deck, all passengers were evacuated without any chaos. This orderly evacuation resulted in nobody sustaining any injuries whatsoever. Fire trucks approached the aircraft, and sprayed foam on the lower portion of the aircraft’s nose that had contacted the runway surface. And then Capt Shabazi saw what he dreaded: smoke in the cockpit.
Aircraft Maintenance Engineers who later inspected the aircraft were awestruck. There was no airframe damage. In fact, the damage was only to a small portion of the aircraft skin. According to Capt Shabazi, “The engineers reported that the aircraft could be put back in service a week after working on the skin”.
“It’s easy to sit on the ground and look back at what happened. But up there, it is very hard”, says Capt Shabazi. The crew of Iran Air 743 has lessons for the whole aviation community.
First is the CRM. CRM addresses crew member communication, group decision making, leadership, attitudes, behaviour, and management. The crew of Iran Air 743 had a common language and culture to satisfy the rudimentary requirements of communication. The exemplary behaviour of the crew was to remain calm and composed. The attitude of all crew members was to shun the ego that may have been developed by virtue of their seniority, and position in the cockpit, paving the way for good group decision making and teamwork. Every member of the crew was a leader in their own way, by staying ahead of the other crew member and the aircraft. The Pilot in Command, capt Shabazi, exercised good management skills in leveraging the excellent attitude, behaviour, experience and technical skills in calling for the checklists, while also enabling a cumulative group decision on the best course of action.
Capt Shabazi, acknowledging that it was not a one man effort, is proud of this three member flight deck crew of that particular flight. Capt Shabazi is equally proud of his the CRM displayed by the 6 cabin crew. In minimal time, with maximum care to human safety, the aircraft was evacuated, without any chaos, and without resulting in so much as a minor injury to anyone. It takes skill to keep the passengers of an aircraft calm.
Second is the technical skill that the crew exhibited, and the experience that they had in their books. CRM is useless without the technical skills of the crew which it relies on. With a rich cumulative flight deck experience running into more than thirty thousand hours, and the Iran Air training that Capt Shabazi is proud of, the ingredients to a successful landing were present. In the opinion of Capt Shabazi, “Airlines must spend on training”. In fact, Capt Shabazi has attended multiple recognized aviation courses all over the world, some held by ICAO as well. He is a firm believer in training, not allowing the four stripes on his shoulders to quench his thirst for knowledge and exposure. He also does not believe in blindly following a Standard Operating Procedure. Iran Air SOP calls for a flap 30 landing, but he chose flaps 40, as “it gives me a much lower approach speed”. Sound judgement, backed by strong technical skills and commendable training played a very important role.
“I believe it was my landing technique” was the only sentence wherein Capt Shabazi claimed credit for the feat.
Need of the hour
It has been observed in all airlines that while practising emergencies in simulator sessions, some crew overreact, get anxious, while some almost hyperventilate. This is the first recipe for disaster, yet airlines do not have an established means by which they can identify such crew, and work towards eliminating the same. One nervous crew member can not only effectively remove one resource in the flight deck, but may also distract the other remaining crew member in the now popular two crew cockpits.
Instructors in a simulator session never mention the root causes of poor performance. Rather, the end result, which is the poor performance itself, is noted. With this feedback, crew members are put through more simulator sessions, not realising that the root cause of the unsatisfactory crew performance is not a result of a lack of preparedness or technical knowledge, but rather a psychological issue: be it behaviour or attitude. These two seemingly harmless attributes impact crew member communication, group decision making, leadership, and management. In such an environment, a technically satisfying decision that leads to a safe outcome cannot be taken.
The other widespread concern in the industry is the quality and appropriateness of airline training, which impacts a crew’s technical competency and preparedness. The crash of Air France 447 in 2009 raises questions on the training imparted to its line crew that may have impacted pilot preparedness.
In the case of Iran Air 743, the crew were totally unprepared for a nose up landing. However, the calm approach to the problem, and their sound technical judgement coupled with their extensive experience saved the day.