El Al emergency landing - May 23, 2011
Flight 027 making an emergency landing at Ben-Gurion Airport early May 23, 2011. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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An El Al flight to Newark that was forced to return and make an emergency landing at Ben-Gurion Airport early yesterday morning was one of three El Al flights in the space of 24 hours to be affected by technical problems, Haaretz learned yesterday.

The first was an El Al flight from Ovda Airport to Paris on Sunday, which had to land at Ben-Gurion to correct a technical fault before being able to continue to France. Next came the successful emergency landing by Flight 027 to Newark. Shortly after that, an El Al flight bound for Moscow was delayed when it was discovered that one of the plane's tires was punctured.

The Boeing 777 that returned to Ben-Gurion yesterday was initially somewhat delayed when a different preflight technical problem was discovered. That was corrected, allowing Flight 027 to take off.

But now, airline officials suspect there may have been a link between Flight 027's landing gear malfunction and the problem that was repaired earlier.

Over the past month, a shortage of manpower in El Al's maintenance department has led to a dispute between workers and management over an attempt to rehire retired maintenance workers to pick up the slack. Worker representatives objected to having these pensioners rehired as maintenance managers under personal contracts. As an interim solution, management has transferred office workers in the maintenance division to the hangars.

Soon after Flight 027, with 259 people aboard, took off at 1:34 A.M., there was an indication of a problem with the landing gear. In accordance with safety regulations, the pilots, David Kant and Eyal Peled, turned the plane around, and Ben-Gurion Airport prepared for an emergency landing.

Ben-Gurion went on Level 2 alert at 2:21 A.M., meaning that more than 350 policemen, over 70 ambulances, about 40 fire trucks and hundreds of airport workers were summoned, according to Airports Authority director Kobi Mor.

Police closed roads around the airport to allow the ambulances free passage to hospitals if necessary. Bentzi Sau, who heads the police's Central District, and Fire Commissioner Shahar Ayalon were both on the scene as firefighters deployed along the runway to respond if a fire broke out during the landing.

The pilots circled over the ocean for several hours to dump 91 tons of fuel, thus reducing the plane's weight and the chance of a fire. This also allowed them to attempt the landing in daylight. An air force fighter jet was sent up to make a visual inspection, and affirmed that the problem was indeed a technical fault, not foul play.

The plane landed safely at 5:50 A.M. The passengers were taken to Terminal 3, where they were greeted by, among others, El Al CEO Eliezer Shkedy. Most of the passengers were put on a different plane that El Al had readied for them, which took off at 9 A.M.; the rest took other flights throughout the day.

Airport activity was not affected during the emergency, though there were some delays in obtaining luggage, since several baggage handlers were drafted to help with the emergency, Mor said.

Some of the passengers who disembarked looked shaken up.

"It was a horrifying experience," said Ran Ben-Shimon, coach of the Ironi Kiryat Shmona soccer team, who had been on the flight with his wife and daughter. "People were sure this was the end and started to recite Psalms and beg God for help.

"Before we landed, my wife and I made a lot of promises that we said we would fulfill if the plane landed safely," he added. "So now I have lots of promises to keep."