Cargo operator suspends operations to Baghdad as investigators study video footage and physical evidence of attack

DHL's European arm has suspended its cargo operations into Baghdad following the missile attack on one of its aircraft "pending the investigation's findings and a full security assessment", says the company. The DHL Airbus A300B4 freighter, which had been bound for Bahrain, made a flapless and slatless high-speed emergency landing at Baghdad International airport on 22 November after being struck by a missile.

The aircraft (OO-DLL) landed safely, but overran the runway and came to rest in the sand, where emergency services put out the fire in the left outer wing using extinguishant foam, but not before considerable damage had been done. The crew of three, who were uninjured, left the aircraft using an emergency evacuation slide.

An SA-7 Grail (Strela 2) man-portable air-defence surface-to-air missile was fired at the aircraft from a position not far from the airport. Video footage mailed to Agence France Press by the men who launched the missile shows a group of about 10 terrorists with the missile launcher, their faces covered, within sight of the airport boundary. The video shows the launch, the missile impact, then follows the aircraft as it returns to the airport with its outer left wing on fire.

Operational sources familiar with Baghdad say the standard arrival and departure for transport aircraft is a spiral close to the airport while the aircraft is low, but the coalition authorities will not confirm whether the A300F was undergoing such a departure. At least eight missile attacks on aircraft operating at Baghdad have been recorded, but only one of them achieved a known hit, bringing down a US military helicopter. This was the first civilian attack.

Investigators found the aircraft in the sandy runway overrun with all high lift devices retracted, but it is not clear whether the crew elected not to deploy them to avoid the risk of increasing the lift asymmetry, or whether the hydraulic systems were inoperative. The left aileron is served by all three hydraulic systems, so the potential appears to exist for damage to all three. The brakes would at least have had accumulator pressure to serve them, but there would have been no anti-skid.

Target touchdown speed without high lift devices, depending on the weight - not known - would have been about 180kt (330km/h) or possibly more to allow for the damage. Maximum speed for the tyres is 195kt, and according to photographs, they do not appear to have suffered serious damage. It is not clear how far along the runway touchdown took place.

European Air Transport (EAT), DHL's Brussels-based company that was operating the A300F, says the aircraft may be repairable because the damage "is primarily limited to the left wing". The investigation is being jointly carried out by the Belgian aviation authorities and US agencies. DHL says it has suspended its Baghdad services until the investigation is complete and a risk reassessment carried out.

The Coalition Authority's tranport department says the other airline operating freight services into Baghdad, Royal Jordanian, had temporarily suspended its flights, but was expected to resume them within a few days. Other flights in and out of Baghdad were not interrupted, says the authority.

Flight International is examining anti-missile protection on airliners at a conference in Washington DC on 28 January. Contact sallie.edwards@rbi.co.uk.

Source: Flight International