Pilot’s attempt to land despite captain’s objection led to Flydubai crash?

By Jacob K Philip

It could be an attempt by the first-officer to land at Rostov-on-Don itself  despite the objection of the captain that led to the crash of Flydubai flight981 at the airport  on 19th morning, this month. The transcription of the last minute of the two-hour long cockpit voice recorder points to this possibility alone.
Though Rossiya-1, a Russian  television channel, that leaked the transcription, has suggested that the crash was caused by an inadvertent activation of the elevator while the aircraft was climbing, an analysis of the transcribed voices  indicates something far more grave and intriguing.

This was how the Channel had interpreted the CVR data:

“The transcript suggests that the pilot lost control of the plane immediately after switching off the autopilot.  The pilot accidentally switched on a stabilising fin at the tail as he tried to pull the plane back to a horizontal position. With this fin activated, the plane practically does not react to the pilot’s control panel. And thus the nose dive and crash.

And here is another paragraph from a news report based on this interpretation:

“On the second landing attempt, the crew decided to pull up and try again, but 40 seconds after beginning the ascent, one of the pilots switched off the autopilot, possibly in response to sudden turbulence, the report said. Seconds after the autopilot was turned off, the plane plunged to the ground”.

The problem with these analyses was that none of them had  looked closely at the dialogues between the pilots. Instead, they went on assuming a lot of things regarding the auto pilot and the movements of flight control surfaces, without the backing of the data from the Flight Data Recorder, which was still being analysed.  The accidental activation of the elevator or a runaway  elevator were mere assumptions without the backing of any proof.

These were the sequence of events  that unfolded at  Rostov-on-Don that fateful morning:

Captain Aristos Sokratous (38) and first officer Alejandro Cruz Alava (37)  were not being able to land the Boeing-737-800 in harsh weather conditions.  They had tried to land once but had to abort it because of  poor visibility. And then began the extraordinary hovering  that lasted well beyond two hours  over Rostov-on-Don. Even as at least two other flights had opted for alternate airports (within 250 km), to the amazement of the ATC, Flight 981 opted to stay put.   After  2 hours, they decided to give it another try. But had to abort the landing again and they initiated a go-around.   But within one minute, the aircraft fell almost like a stone and crashed, killing all aboard. The transcription of the CVR has the sounds in the cockpit during that last, tragic one-minute.

The timeline and the voices:

  • Before 01:40:40GMT (The transcription aired by the channel does not specify the exact time):  ‘Going around’,  -‘Climbing to 50’, -‘Climbing to 50’
  • 01:40:40GMT: “Do not worry, do not worry, do not worry!”
  • 01:40:45GMT: “Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this!”
  • 01:40:50GMT : ‘Pull! Pull! Pull!
  • 01:40:54GMT ‘Aaaaaa’ (inhuman cries)

“Do not worry, do not worry, do not worry!”

At 01:40:40 one of the pilots says, “Do not worry, do not worry, do not worry!” (Before this, they already had aborted the landing and initiated a go around and had started climbing to 5000 ft). (Most probably that was Captain Sokratous. Because the chances for a first officer to say this to his commander are so remote).

The obvious implications of the words “Do not worry”, repeated thrice are this:

  1. One of the pilots was worried about something.
  2. The cause of the worry was already known to the other one, who seems to console, reassure.
  3. The re-assuring pilot was not sure if the other one would cease to worry- that was why the repetition.

What was the worry?

The answer could be there in the manoeuvre they just had initiated: Go around.

He must have been worried about doing a ‘go around’ again.  The next voice (heard 5 seconds after) proves this assumption was correct:

“Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this!” 

What it he was doing, for the captain to yell like this?  The answer is here:  It was at this point that the plane started its fatal dive.

So the pilot, who was worried about yet another go-around, initiated the descent on his own, against the ‘loud and clear’ instruction of the Captain.

Pull Up, Pull Up

This call to pull the aircraft up comes five seconds after.  While the aircraft was falling at disastrous speed, the voice heard yelling Pull Up, Pull Up very well could have been uttered by the Commander of the plane. And it can also be the automated ground -proximity warning.  Whatever it was, one fact is clear:  The pulling up was never done.

Inhuman cries

The nerve-chilling cries heard four seconds later imply another important thing.

It was not an attempt to crash the aircraft deliberately (as in the German wings crash case). That is, if the cry was from both the pilots.

The aircraft hit the ground within seconds, exploded, killing all aboard.

More about the “Dont Worry”

It could be argued that the pilot was not worried about the “go around”, but about some blunder he could have  committed in manoeuvring the plane, like an inadvertent pulling of a lever, activation of a switch, just as suggested by Rossiya-1.  If so, the Captian would then have been looking for a solution, a correction. He could have been trying to correct the action and at the same time only telling his colleague that, “it was okay, I will correct it, don’t worry”

What the first officer could’ve been doing while his captain been busy correcting an error he had committed? By all probability, he would have been watching it all, with guilt written all over his face. And the last thing he would do at that juncture would be touching the console again.

But what happens 5 seconds later? The Captain yells this :

 “Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this!”

The first pilot had  just done something that should never have been done!  Again?!

That is unbelievable.

There is only one explanation:  His initial worry was never about some blunder he had committed.

So why he acted against all the norms of subordination and CRM? What was the urgency?

Or again, what was his worry?

The answer will be in the CVR itself- that is, in the 119 minutes prior to the last one minute. Though it never was leaked to any media, that 119 minutes must be full of the words exchanged between the two pilots. While just hovering over an airport for two hours, looking for an oppotunity to land, no colleagues can remain silent. The answers will be there in the chat between the two while flying in numerous loops over  Rostov-on-Don.

The hovering for a couple of hours

The perplexing hovering for two hours when there were ample opportunities to fly to another and land there, may be explained, by the extra-ordinary attempt made by the pilot to land despite the shocked intervention of the captain.

It could have been because of the persuasion of the first officer that the captain decided to remain there.   He wanted to land at the airport that day. That exactly could be why  he appeared worried when the second attempt to land was aborted and the captain imitated a climb to 5000 ft.  He might’ve feared that they would be going to another airport soon.  And that explains his taking over the control.

But why?

Why he was worried about not being able to land at that airport on that fateful morning of March 19?

That obviously is the most crucial question.

(Jacob K Philip, a Doha based aviation analyst, is the honorary editor of Indian Aviation News Net. He can be reached at jacob@indianaviationnews.net)
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