Pilots relive Iraq missile attack

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Story emerges of how DHL crew controlled stricken A300 to a landing at Baghdad in November 2003

Full details are emerging of how the crew of the DHL Airbus A300B4 freighter that was struck by a missile near Baghdad International airport in November 2003 succeeded in landing the aircraft back at the airfield. All three hydraulic systems on the twinjet were drained, so the crew suffered complete loss of all the flight controls - but the engines kept operating.

When it was hit by the SA-14 missile, the aircraft's left wingtip was severely damaged and on fire, the A300 rapidly lost hydraulic pressure from all its three systems, depriving the pilots of all flight controls, slats and flaps.

After the missile struck at about 8,000ft (2,440m) the aircraft initially continued its climb away from the airport, but when flight engineer Mario Rofail summed up the hydraulic problems the pilots realised they would not regain their flight controls.

Airbus has since confirmed that, for the rest of the flight, the horizontal stabiliser remained stuck at the trim position appropriate for flight at 215kt (398km/h) airspeed with the engines set at climb thrust.

After experimenting with controlling the aircraft's heading, pitch, bank and vertical profile with thrust alone, eventually the crew coaxed the aircraft into a shallow descent in which the speed varied between 270kt and 290kt. Even though the aircraft was flying too fast and was still above 5,000ft, Capt Eric Gennotte called for the gear to be lowered using the gravity extension procedure. Rofail did this successfully, and it stabilised the aircraft at about 215kt.

When the crew were ready to fly back toward the airport they had lost sight of it, but first officer Steeve Michielsen navigated the aircraft on to a long straight approach to runway 33. Because the approach was oscillatory and the configuration non-standard the ground proximity warning system was continually sounding.

The wing was still on fire, and Rofail was managing the fuel system to keep the left engine fed but not lose fuel through damaged left wing tanks.

As the ground approached there was turbulence from the crosswind – 290° at 20kt. Gennotte managed to set the aircraft down on the runway with nose-up pitch and a moderate rate of descent without causing wing-drop, but having no steering or rudder the aircraft rapidly veered off the runway. Rofail selected both engines to full reverse thrust, surrounding the aircraft in dust as it slowed in the sandy ground. The crew shut the engines down and evacuated the aircraft.

DAVID LEARMOUNT / LONDON