An air transport pilot tells of a near miss in an ATR.
Many years ago I was employed in Asia flying an ATR-72-212. This aircraft has a gross weight of 22,000kg and carries 72 passengers and two cabin and two tech crew. This day’s flying involved four sectors starting and ending at our home base. It was the monsoon season and the weather forecast indicated bad weather and minimums all round.
The first three sectors went without incident; however, the take-off for the final sector was a bit different than expected. We had boarded the passengers, and our ground weight was around 20,000kg from memory. This was on the limit for this airfield, which was about 5000 ft AMSL, slightly undulating, narrow by most standards and had piles of gravel laid all around the runway ready for building a new runway at some future stage.
After receiving the manifest and load and trim sheet, the first officer and I examined it together, set the trim for take-off, set the V speeds and when the door was closed, we fired up the left engine. (The right engine was running with the prop brake on to provide power for the lighting etc. on board.)
I taxied out and lined up after having briefed the F/O on the take-off. I then opened the throttles and pushed them forward into the take-off detent. (In the detent, you have set 90 per cent power which is enough for the take-off).
Listen to this close call:
The aircraft accelerated and at 110 kt the F/O called ‘rotate’. I eased the control back, but nothing happened. I immediately looked at the ASI to see if I had set the bugs correctly. (The bugs are three different-coloured plastic markers which you set manually on the outer rim of the ASI: the first one to denote V1, the second Vr and the third V2 which are the reference speed which must be achieved for the take-off and initial climb.)
At the time, all company pilots were flying around 120 hours per month. We had been doing this for some time, so we were all suffering from chronic fatigue. The aviation laws in this country did not have any rules for duty time, so we were worked pretty hard.
One manifestation of chronic fatigue was for the pilots to set the bugs 10 kt slow—never fast, just slow. The strange thing was that the captain and the first officer would do this; and even after cross-checking each other’s settings, would both declare they were set correctly, even when they were 10 kt slow. This was common to all crews.
As I had determined that the rotate speed was set correctly, my immediate thoughts were that I had an elevator control unlock—you can unlock the elevator in this aircraft if it is stuck. I pulled the control back until it hit the limiting stop; still nothing happened.
We were accelerating very rapidly by this time. There was precious little runway left and the thought of going off the end of the runway and impacting the gravel piles in a country that did not have pethidine or morphine did not appeal to me.
In an emergency in the ATR, you can push the throttles out of the 90 per cent detent up to a stop at the 100 per cent position; and if needed, in the case of windshear and microbursts, you can push them further to the 115 per cent position. When you do this, you feel the throttles start to rise as you have to push them up a ramp. It is designed that way so you know what you are doing without looking at the throttle position, to prevent inadvertent excessive power demands.
When you do this you will cause excessive turbine rub and basically when you land you will need to overhaul the engines—so, not a good career move.
As the aircraft did not rotate, the only thing I could think of was to get more air over the elevators, so I pushed the throttles forward and told the first officer I was going ‘up the ramp’, so he knew I was going to apply maximum power available.
I felt the power levers hit the 100 per cent position and start to rise up the ramp. Just as I had pushed them up a small amount, the nose slowly started to rise so I took my hand off the throttles and held the control full back. The power levers fell back to the 100 per cent position.
Just after lift-off I felt a small shudder which I guess was the main wheels hitting one of the gravel piles off the end of the runway.
As the aircraft accelerated I started easing the control forward and trimming the aircraft back. Normally the trim will sit at 1.0 or 1.2 rear for the take-off which is what was set; however, as we accelerated, I kept trimming back until the trim hit the 4.5 maximum rear position.
We carried out the usual after take-off procedures and when complete the first officer said, ‘thank God that’s over with’. I said ‘it isn’t over yet as I am not sure I can flare the aircraft for the landing’.
The en-route part of the flight was uneventful. However, when we were cleared for the ILS 30nm from the field, I began experimenting with speeds to see what speed was needed to give me sufficient control authority to flare for the landing.
The speed was about 170 kt (normally about 135 kt) and after checking the bible it was above the brake energy limits and tyre speed limits for the aircraft, again not a good prospect.
We proceeded with the ILS and fortunately broke visual about 800 ft AGL and I picked up the PAPI (visual precision approach path indicator for landings) and maintained a normal approach profile at the higher speed to about 200ft AGL. I then allowed the aircraft to get low on the PAPI as I was trying to flatten the approach to reduce the flare on landing.
The touchdown went well and the tyres held together. After deceleration to normal speeds I applied reverse thrust, then brakes, and taxied in to the terminal.
When we had parked, I asked the first officer to go and tell the baggage handlers not to take the bags and freight to the terminal, as I wanted to inspect them first. After completing the (post-flight) cockpit duties I proceeded to the baggage trolleys and escorted them to the terminal. I made the ground crew weigh all items.
The result? Eight hundred kilograms of freight manifested for the rear cargo hold had been placed in the forward cargo hold. There was very little freight in the rear hold.
I might point out that neither the first officer or myself checked the bags and freight after loading. We had qualified loadmasters who took care of all this, and it was not company policy for the tech crew to check where the freight was. We could have checked it visually, but not knowing what the items weighed, it would have been impossible to know if there was a problem.
After the engineers had downloaded the flight parameters to their laptop, they advised me that no engine damage had occurred. Apparently I had powered up to about 103 per cent and only for a couple of seconds, so all was well. And there was no apparent damage to the undercarriage from the impact after take-off.
The loadmaster responsible for the loading had his employment opportunities immediately freed up.
When an aircraft is loaded so far out of C of G you generally get really bad control problems, which can have catastrophic consequences—however, the ATR flew like a dream even with the C of G substantially out of position. This is a great testimony to the designers and builders of this aircraft.
I have submitted this article as food for thought for my colleagues currently flying—it is an emergency that just ‘doesn’t happen’. It did to me. Makes you think doesn’t it?