Be careful what you leave near the controls when you’re flying a military jet, was the clear message contained within an interim Service Inquiry report released by the UK Military Aviation Authority (MAA) earlier in the week.
On 9 February, several people were injured when a Royal Air Force-operated Airbus A330 Voyager tanker/transport (Crown Copyright image below) made “an unscheduled change of flight level” during a passenger flight between Brize Norton in the UK and Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. Thanks to the MAA report, now we know the full details, and also have a pretty clear indication of how the incident happened.
While in the cruise at an altitude of 33,000ft, something made aircraft ZZ333 adopt a sudden nose-down attitude, losing some 4,400ft within just 27sec before its crew regained control. The movement caused negative g sufficient to propel several people – including the co-pilot, who was in the forward galley at the time – into the roof of the aircraft, the report says.
Various early rumours suggested this might have been because of the military modifications made to the widebody, and specifically those linked to its suite of self-protection equipment, needed to enable direct flights into Afghanistan. Frankly, those didn’t make sense, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise when the investigation pointed towards ‘Human Factors’.
Published on 17 March, the interim report is an extraordinary read, and a cautionary tale for aircrew. In essence, a digital SLR camera which was stowed by the Captain’s seat became jammed between the seat arm and side-stick control as he moved his seat forwards, causing the sudden pitching down of the nose.
This was a worrying incident involving a new type, and also a bit of a wake-up call for the RAF. Now that the Voyager is taking its place as the service’s lone tanker type, it can’t have a repeat of such a howler. As shown in this instance – where its A330s were kept on the ground for 12 days – it can’t count on the MAA to cut corners in its investigation work.