A plane carrying 44 passengers plummeted towards the ground shortly after take-off from Belfast City Airport because of an autopilot error, a UK government report has revealed.
The Flybe aircraft was only 283 metres from the ground when the commander managed to put the plane back into a climb, the Air Accidents Investigations Branch report into the January 11 incident said.
The plane, which was bound for Glasgow Airport, had reached a height of 411 metres when the autopilot kicked in.
At this point, an incorrect autopilot altitude setting – which gave a target altitude of zero feet – meant it “pitched nose-down and then descended rapidly,” investigators said.
When the commander, one of four crew on board, realised what was happening, he swiftly disconnected the autopilot and regained control of the aircraft, which was descending at a maximum of 1310 metres per minute.
The descent was so steep that the crew “subsequently reported that they had become visual with the ground during the recovery,” the report said.
Once back at the correct altitude, the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 aircraft continued to Glasgow, where it made an uneventful landing. No one was injured.
The AAIB concluded that the incident was down to the crew’s selection of a particular autopilot mode before take-off.
The crew failed to spot the incorrect mode in part because a late change to the aircraft’s payload left them with reduced time to carry out pre-flight checks, the report said.
“As a result of this event the operator has taken several safety actions including revisions to simulator training and amendments to the taxi checklist,” the report said.
Flybe, an independent regional airline based in England, said it “implemented remedial actions quickly in response to the incident” and changed procdures and training to lessen the risk of a similar incident.
The carrier, which operates over 158,000 flights a year, said “the safety of our passengers and crew remains our number one priority”.
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