Aircraft Attempts Take Off With Built-In Stairs Deployed (Update)

A319 on Wilkins Runway.jpgSkytraders A319 VH-VHD at Wilkins Aerodome, Antarctica (Photo: AAD)

Update Wednesday: Skytraders Chief Pilot and Director of Operations Terry Vickers confirms his company’s A319 (above) was the aircraft involved in the Sunday incident at Cocos Islands off the northwestern coast of Australia. “There was a human error at the issue in closing the door which was combined with an erroenous cockpit indicator. The indicator in the cockpit said the stairs were retracted and the doors were closed,” Vickers says.

During the cabin door closing procedure the stairs at the front left-hand side of the aircraft were left deployed and a cockpit warning indicator failed to alert the crew to the problem. Vickers explains that in normal operation, “You get an error in the cockpit if you start the engines with the stairs not retracted.”

Vickers says the crew taxied at Cocos Islands airport for 50-100 metres before a flight attendant, “who could hear the the noise of the stairs scraping along,” alerted the pilots to the problem. Vickers says while he is not aware of ground personnel or onlookers rushing to the aircraft to alert the crew to the problem, reports indicating as such might be correct. But the the aircraft did not attempt or start to take off with the stairs deployed, Vickers adds.

Built-in stairs are not common with Airbus family jets. Vickers says the Skytraders A319 is the only aircraft in its type operating in Australia with built-in stairs.

“When we first put the stairs in it took us a day to rig the area,” Vickers says of the complexity and sensitivity. He notes it is possible the sensor that detects the stairs’ deployment and then notifies the cockpit needs to be re-calibrated. Vickers says he is aware of reports of other stair-equipped Airbus A320-family aircraft receiving faulty indicators if the built-in stairs are deployed or not.

Vickerys says Skytraders is “investigating heavily” and is currently awaiting the jet’s return to its Melbourne base.  He says there was no damage to the aircraft and it “is flying as we speak”. In the interim Vickers says Skytraders has instructed the non-flying pilot to retract the stairs and close the cabin door, a duty previously assigned to flight attendants.

The aircraft was operating a series of charters for Australia’s Department of Immigration & Citizenship. The aircraft was selected in part because there are no stairs available at Cocos Islands. Vickers says the Cocos flight was a one-off flight and he does not expect to return there. Last Wednesday a small boat carrying a group of asylum seekers broke down in the Indian Ocean. The survivors were brought to Cocos Islands to be temporarily held, according to local media reports. Vickers says there were 82 passengers and 7 crew on board.

Original: In a strange is-that-even-possible-do incident, an aircraft understood to be a Skytraders A319 (above) in the Cocos Islands, the Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, taxied and commenced its take off roll with its built-in rear stairs down.

According to a witness, as originally reported by the Australian:

“There were some Customs officers nearby and they pelted towards the fence as we all started to run towards the airfield,” he said. “One of the Customs blokes got over the fence first and ran up waving his arms to stop the plane.

“It was clear the pilot and others at different parts of the airfield couldn’t see the stairs at the rear.”

When the pilot was informed, the rear door was opened and the stairs withdrawn into their separate hatch.

The pilot then recommenced the take-off.

The aircraft believed to be involved–as best I can surmise–is A319-115 LR/ACJ VH-VHD (MSN 1999) of Skytraders. Skytraders is the Melbourne-based carrier that provides flights to Antarctica for the Australian government. The A319 made its inaugural flight to Antartica’s Wilkins Aerodome from Tasmania in 2007. Antarctic flights are conducted only during the southern hemisphere summer.

It is not clear under what agreement the A319 was operating for Australia’s immigration department. Skytraders couldn’t be reached for comment.

The initial report did not name the operating carrier. Strategic Airlines, which has A320s available for charters, was quick to absolve itself from any speculation, saying: “Strategic Airlines was in no way involved in the reportedincident.”

Adding to the drama, the aircraft was carrying 120 asylum seekers and government officials. It is believed the aircraft was bound for the detention centre at Christmas Island, a contentious matter with the Australian public (as detention centres frequently are anywhere).

One wonders about a cockpit alert for deployed stairs. Questions will be asked–a notification report with Australia’s Air Transport Safety Bureau should be filed within 72 hours of the incident–but what will be a minor question for this incident in almost any other matter would be large: how were people able to jump the fence?

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