FlyDubai crash: Pilot error to blame

The incident aircraft, a FlyDubai Boeing 737-800 (A6-FDN). Photo by Bruno Geiger CC 2.0

On the 18th of March this year, a FlyDubai Boeing 737-800 (registration A6-FDN) operating flight FZ981 with 55 passengers and 7 crew members crashed during landing phase at Rostov-on-Don airport in eastern Russia. The aircraft was initiating a go-around due to stormy conditions when it entered a dive and impacted the ground, instantly killing all on board. As the flight data recorders did not indicate any sort of mechanical failure and the weather was deemed not enough to be the sole cause of the crash, investigators speculated that pilot error was to blame for the crash.

Upon approach into Rostov-on-Don airport, FlyDubai Flight 981 encountered serious weather and aborted its first landing attempt. It circled overhead for around two hours before attempting another landing. This second attempt was also aborted, and the aircraft entered its dive while climbing out of the second failed attempt. The official preliminary report by the Russian officials suggested that the pilots fell into a sort of disorientation called a “somatogravic illusion”. This kind of illusion is typically caused by immediate acceleration, and causes pilots to feel like they are tilting upward at a steep angle. As the Boeing 737 operating Flight 981 only had minimal fuel remaining by the second landing attempt and was only carrying one third of its passenger capacity, it would have been particularly light and therefore had an unusually high thrust to weight ratio during its full power go-around. This means that it was able to accelerate at a substantial rate, which would have pushed the pilots into their seat and triggered the somatogravic illusion. As the clouds blocked any sort of visual cues, the pilots would have felt that the aircraft was pitching up at a near-stall angle, even though their instruments would have been telling a different story. In an effort to “correct” the pitch angle, they pushed the nose down and unintentionally sent the aircraft into a dive. Once the aircraft broke the cloud layer and the pilots were able to re-orient themselves visually, it was too late to recover. The aircraft exploded into a fireball upon impact, and all on board were killed immediately.

Every aviation incident results in a lesson of some sort being learned to prevent any future repeats. The lesson that we should from this accident is that pilots must always trust their instruments and that aviation industry should be more cautious of pilot disorientation.

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