2003 Baghdad DHL attempted shootdown incident
The aircraft involved photographed in June 2003
|Date||22 November 2003|
|Summary||Terrorist missile attack, loss of flight controls|
|Site||Baghdad International Airport, Baghdad, Iraq|
|Aircraft type||Airbus A300B4-203F|
|Operator||European Air Transport doing business as DHL Express|
|Flight origin||Baghdad International Airport|
|Destination||Bahrain International Airport|
On 22 November 2003, shortly after takeoff from Baghdad, Iraq, an Airbus A300B4-200F cargo plane owned by European Air Transport (doing business as DHL Express) was struck on the left wing tip by a surface-to-air missile. Severe wing damage resulted in a fire and complete loss of hydraulic flight control systems. Because outboard left wing fuel tank 1A was full at takeoff, there was no fuel-air vapour explosion. Liquid jet fuel dropped away as 1A disintegrated. Inboard fuel tank 1 was pierced and leaking.
Returning to Baghdad, the three-man crew made an injury-free landing of the crippled aircraft, using differential engine thrust as the only pilot input. This is despite major damage to a wing, total loss of hydraulic control, a faster than safe landing speed and a ground path which veered off the runway surface and onto unprepared ground.
Sara Daniel, a French weekly newsmagazine journalist claimed receipt, from an unknown source, of a video that showed insurgents, faces concealed, firing a missile at the DHL A300. Daniel was researching a feature about Iraqi resistance groups but she disclaimed any specific knowledge of the people who carried out the attack, despite being present at the moment of attack.
The aircraft took off from Baghdad International Airport en route to Bahrain International Airport at 06:30 UTC with an experienced crew of three: two Belgians, 38-year-old Captain Éric Gennotte and 29-year-old First Officer Steeve Michielsen, and a Scot, 54-year-old flight engineer Mario Rofail. The captain was a relatively experienced pilot with 13,423 total flight hours. More than half of his hours had been logged in the A300. The first officer had 1,275 hours of flight experience and the flight engineer had 3,300 hours of flight experience.
Moments following the strike
To reduce exposure to ground attack, the aircraft was executing a rapid climbout. At about 8,000 feet (2,450 metres), a 9K34 Strela-3 (SA-14 Gremlin) surface-to-air missile struck the left wing tip. The warhead damaged trailing edge surfaces of the wing structure and caused a fire. All three hydraulic systems lost pressure and flight controls were disabled. The aircraft pitched rapidly up and down in a roller-coaster phugoid, oscillating between a nose-up and a nose-down position.
As in the case of the 1989 United Airlines Flight 232 disaster in the United States, Captain Genotte could only use thrust to modify pitch, speed and altitude and vary throttles asymmetrically to control yaw and turn the aircraft. Flight engineer Mario Rofail executed a gravity drop to extend the landing gear, a procedure normally accomplished with hydraulic power. Early deployment of the gear was critical to a safe outcome because increased drag helped reduce speed and stabilize the Airbus.
In about 10 minutes of experimentation, the crew learned to manage turns, climbs and descents. After a meandering trajectory, they executed a right turn and initiated a descent path to Baghdad International Airport.
Final approach and emergency landing
Because of left wing damage and fuel loss, Rofail had to monitor the engine closely - if fuel flow was lost from the left side, he would have to feed fuel from a right tank to maintain thrust. Survival was dependent on accurate power control of each jet engine.
Genotte and Michielsen set up for a final approach to runway 33R. The aircraft drifted to the right of the intended course, so Genotte chose the shorter 33L runway. Visibility was excellent and the pilots managed a controlled descent. They knew that, counter-intuitively, they could not retard throttles before touchdown without risking the nose or a wing smashing disastrously into the ground.
At about 400 feet (120 meters) turbulence upset the aircraft balance and the right wing dipped. With thrust adjustments, the roll was controlled but the aircraft touched down off the runway centerline. Rofail immediately deployed full reverse thrust but the Airbus veered off the paved runway. The aircraft ran through rough soft ground, throwing up a plume of sand and dragging a razor wire barrier, and halted after about 1,000 meters (3,300 ft).
Awards and aftermath
The Honourable Company of Air Pilots jointly honoured crewmembers with the Hugh Gordon-Burge Memorial Award. This is awarded to flight crew whose action contributed outstandingly by saving their aircraft or passengers, or made a significant contribution to future air safety. This annual award is made only if a nomination is considered to be of significant merit.
The Flight Safety Foundation's FSF Professionalism Award in Flight Safety was presented to the crewmembers for their "extraordinary piloting skills in flying their aircraft to a safe landing after a missile strike following takeoff from Baghdad, Iraq".
In May 2006, Captain Eric Genotte, together with Armand Jacob, an Airbus experimental test pilot, gave a presentation to the Toulouse branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society titled "Landing an A300 Successfully Without Flight Controls".
In addition to severe wing and undercarriage damage, both jet engines suffered ruinous abuse by ingesting debris. The already aging aircraft has not flown again. As of 2011, the aircraft is still at Baghdad airport.
In popular culture
- The story of the incident was featured on the third season of Canadian National Geographic Channel show Mayday (known as Air Disasters in the US, Mayday in Canada and Ireland, and Air Crash Investigation in the UK and the rest of world). The episode is entitled "Attack Over Baghdad".
- Civil Aircraft Missile Protection System
- Flight Guard
- Flight with disabled controls
- List of airliner crashes involving loss of control
- Aviation Week and Space Technology, 8 December 2003
- Great escape
- "Air Crash Investigators"
- "Voici le commando qui a touché l'Airbus", Claudine Vernier-Palliez, Paris Match, N° 2845 – 27 Novembre 2003
- "Tape purports to show missile attack on cargo jet". 25 November 2003. Archived from the original on 13 February 2012.
- Daniel, Sara. Voyage to a Stricken Land. Arcade Publishing, 2006, ISBN 1559707852, pg. 77
- Elco B. (30 April 2006). "Special planes: OO-DLL hit above Bagdad". European Tribune. Retrieved 9 July 2013.
- Pilots relive Iraq missile attack
- The Gordon-Burge Memorial Award – THCAP
- FSF Professionalism Award in Flight Safety | Flight Safety Foundation
- Photos: Airbus A300B4-203(F) Aircraft Pictures | Airliners.net
- Mayday (also known as Air Emergency and Air Crash Investigation), Season 3, Episode 5: Attack Over Baghdad
- Criminal Occurrence description at the Aviation Safety Network
- Agence France-Presse article about the incident
- ParisMatch article by Claudine Vernier-Palliez, who accompanied the Fedayeen commando unit who shot the plane.
- Paper by Jacques Rosay
- Australian Government Civil Aviation Safety Authority
- Australian Society of Air Safety Investigators