Though unconfirmed by DHL, an unofficial collection of photos and text circulating on the Internet sheds chilling light on the November 22 missile attack at Baghdad International Airport. The Brussels, Belgium-based DHL Airbus A300B4-200 freighter, bound for Bahrain, was hit after takeoff and made a successful emergency landing back at the Baghdad airport with no injury to the three-man Belgian/UK crew. The weapon was a Russian-designed SA-7 surface-to-air missile fired by Iraqi insurgents. A video obtained by a French news team shows the group of Iraqis setting up and firing the missile, the flash when it struck the Airbus and the successful emergency landing.
The PowerPoint package includes a variety of photos of the dramatic landing, the aircraft running off the runway in a cloud of sand and details of the damage to the left wing. The text includes an account of the short flight and a summary of the damage, apparently written by a member of the DHL team sent to assess the airplane two days after the attack.
According to that report, the Airbus was hit by the missile at 8,000 feet. The projectile entered the left wing just inboard of the aileron at the trailing edge and penetrated a fuel tank, which was full. The explosion and resulting fire burned away much of the wing’s structure and precipitated a complete failure of the airplane’s yellow, green and blue hydraulic systems–all three. About one minute after the strike, the crew of the 1979-built Airbus was left with no control of the ailerons, elevator or rudder, leaving only engine thrust to fly the airplane. There is no manual reversion for either the primary flight controls or the trim system. The pilots flew by increasing thrust in both engines to raise the nose, decreasing thrust to lower it and using differential thrust for directional control.
According to other published reports, the captain had recently attended a safety seminar featuring retired United captain Al Haynes, who flew his DC-10 to a controlled landing at Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989, after an uncontained failure of the center engine severed all hydraulic lines, rendering the airplane’s controls useless. It was after Haynes’ remarkable achievement (of 376 souls on board, 184 survived) that NASA experimented with using engine thrust to control large aircraft after a total loss of hydraulic pressure.
Because the trim systems were also disabled by the loss of hydraulics, it was fortunate for the DHL crew that the aircraft was trimmed for a steep, relatively low-speed departure when the missile hit. Ironically, the procedure was meant to lessen vulnerability to missile attack, given the threatening combat conditions surrounding the airport. After the missile hit, the captain experimented with using engine thrust to control pitch and differential thrust to steer. He circled twice while the other two crewmembers extended the landing gear manually, but was conscious of the time limitations, given the fact that the wing was still on fire. The captain set up a 20-mile final with a reported approach speed of 225 kt, slowing to about 180 kt just before touchdown.
Sixteen minutes after being struck, the crew attempted to land on Runway 33R, but shifted at the last minute to 33L. They landed hard, veering off the pavement into soft sand. (Had they landed on 33R, they would have hit the airport fire station.) After passing through a razor-wire fence, the airplane came to rest at the bottom of a slope between the runway and a taxiway. It had plowed through the soft sand for about 2,000 feet before coming to rest. While airport fire teams sprayed foam on
the still-blazing wing, the crew first attempted to escape via the left inflatable slide. But the slide apparently hit razor wire and deflated, so the three men deployed the right-side slide and evacuated.
David Rossier, a Continental Airlines pilot with more than 5,000 hours in A300s, told AIN, “The DHL crew’s achievement was just as remarkable as that of Al Haynes back in 1989. Without hydraulics, that airplane becomes an anvil.”
It took a U.S. Air Force tug with 300-foot cables attached to each main landing gear and a pushback tug on the nosewheel to tow the Airbus out of the soft sand and razor wire and back to an Iraqi Airways facility. The assessment team said the left engine would rotate, but had ingested razor wire and lots of sand and was deemed unsalvageable. The right engine had seized, presumably from ingesting even greater quantities of fence and sand at full reverse thrust, used by the crew to try to keep the Airbus straight on the runway. The engine inlet suffered “unacceptable” lip damage from the wire and fence posts to the point where it, too, appeared unsalvageable to the team.
On the wing, about 10 feet of the rear spar in front of the outboard flap was either blown or burnt away. The top and bottom wing skins bulged upward and downward where the initial explosion occurred. What remained of the outboard flap track was dangling with a small portion of the flap itself. The rest of the flap was missing. An expansive crack in the inboard section of the rear spar was attributed, possibly, to stress from the heavy landing. The front main spar was intact, though burned, and the fuel-tank ribs in front of the outboard fuel tank (tank 1A) were burned halfway through.
The reactions of all those who have seen the photos and read the damage assessment has been consistent. The DHL crew, unnamed so far, performed remarkably to bring the heavily damaged aircraft to a safe landing.