An Excel Airways Boeing 737-800 with 197 people on board began its take-off run at Manchester Airport, UK with the pilots unaware that seven vehicles that were carrying out scheduled work on the runway surface at the other end, reducing the published take-off run available (TORA), reveals a UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) report.
By the time the crew saw the vehicles – which were out of sight beyond a rise in the runway – there was no longer sufficient distance to stop, so the crew took off over the top of the trucks, clearing them by 56ft (17m), says the AAIB.
The causal factors for the incident, says the AAIB, were that the crew of the aircraft (G-XLAG) did not realise take-off runway 06L/24R was operating at reduced length because of work in progress (WIP) to remove rubber deposits from the touchdown areas. The report notes that they were unaware despite the fact that the details were available to them via notices to airmen (NOTAM), the aerodrome terminal information system (ATIS), and spoken advice from air traffic control (ATC).
The pilot was originally cleared to enter the runway at the Threshold holding point (2) but the pilot requested a line-up at the Alpha Golf holding point (1) and was cleared with a reminder of the runway length available.
The Board’s just-published report of the 16 July 2003 incident also describes how, the previous night, three arriving aircraft were cleared to approach the same runway which had been operating at a reduced usable length for part of each day since 14 July because of WIP. The crews of the approaching aircraft were informed of the reduced landing run available late on their approach, and since it was less than they required all three had to go around. The first of the three aircraft, a Lockheed TriStar abandoned its approach from a point 4.6km (2.5nm) from the threshold.
The copilot of Excel flight 2146 to Kos, Greece arrived for duty earlier than the required 1h before the planned 14:55 local time take-off, but the captain telephoned him to say he was stuck in traffic and would be a little late. While the copilot was assembling the relevant flight data the refuellers telephoned him requesting the fuel required. The copilot decided he would calculate and order the required fuel before the captain’s arrival once he had checked the weather for the flight planned route and the NOTAMS for the destination, which he did. But, says the AAIB, he failed to check the NOTAMs for Manchester airport which stated the TORA for 06L was reduced to 1,926m from its full length of 3,048m because of the WIP.
The captain arrived 50min before take-off and met the copilot as he was leaving the crewroom, says the report. The captain told the AAIB he checked the fuel figures but decided to scan the NOTAMs at the aircraft. On the flight deck the commander programmed the flight management system (FMS) and the copilot listened to the ATIS, but only recorded the runway in use and the weather information, but not the warning of intense bird activity or the detail about the reduced TORA. When the copilot called for departure clearance before start-up, Manchester Delivery said: “Expo 2146 hello there, will you be able to accept the reduced take-off run available on 06L?” The copilot replied: “Yeah from Alpha Golf, Expo 2146,” indicating the crew intended to enter the runway at holding point AG, rather than at the threshold of 06L, which would further reduce the TORA. Manchester Delivery said “Okay that’s copied” and delivered the departure details and squawk code.
The report says: “By the time the aircraft pushed back, both pilots were aware that some work was being conducted on 06L as a result of listening to ATC communications with other aircraft.” Upon being questioned later the pilots indicated they assumed the WIP was “either at the threshold end of 06L or in the stop area, and that in either case it would not impinge on their performance requirements.”
Manchester ground cleared the aircraft to taxi to 06L, then the crew changed frequency to the Tower, which confirmed 06L but did not specify a particular holding point. The copilot transmitted: “Tower Expo 2146 we’re taking it from Alpha Golf,” to which the Tower replied: “If you’re happy with that, that gives you, er, sixteen seventy metres.” The copilot acknowledged with “Roger”.
When the aircraft lined up the crew could not see the vehicles the other end of 06L because they were the other side of a slight rise in the runway, and reduced take-off thrust was set on the assumption that the full runway was available. When the pilots did see the vehicles they could no longer stop in time, says the report, but by carrying out a rotation at the planned rotation speed, the report says, they still cleared the highest vehicle by 17m.
Neither the crew, nor the airport, nor air traffic control filed a report on the incident to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), but a week later ATC provider NATS, having received an internal report of the incident, filed the details to the CAA. The AAIB report is also critical of the management of the runway work, of the communications procedures between the various parties involved, and the timeliness of the original NOTAM.
Manchester Airport says: "The report highlights [the fact that] Manchester Airport followed laid down procedures, [but] we have taken the opportunity to review and improve our working practices to ensure that this could not happen again."
NATS says: “We commissioned a high-level internal investigation which was completed in 2004, and wasted no time in putting improved procedures into place, ahead of the AAIB’s report.”