Despite Oil Leak, Pilot Waited Until Last Minute to Radio

Same plane model was involved in incident last year when smoke began to fuel fuselage during flight.

Due to a technical malfunction, Israir flight 215 was forced to land in Israel on Friday with only one functioning engine. Passengers and aviation experts praised the pilot's handling of the situation, but expressed skepticism about the airline's safety procedures.

The plane, an Airbus A320 model, had taken off from Ben-Gurion International Airport in Lod to Berlin when the pilot informed supervisors of pressure loss in one of the engines. The aircraft was directed back for landing and a state of alert was announced in the airport. It landed safely at 11:10 A.M., causing no injuries or damage.

"I turned off an engine and declared a state of emergency," the pilot told the control tower two minutes before touching down.

An official at the Israel Airports Authority said his organization would have preferred to be notified of the situation earlier. "It would be preferable from our perspective that the pilot declare 'state of emergency 2' far enough ahead of time, so we could get organized with the greatest number of rescue crews before landing," an official told Haaretz Saturday.

Passengers described a pilot uncertain of making a safe landing, but nonetheless exuding calm over the loudspeaker.

"We flew for about an hour and a half. Suddenly, the pilot said, in his words, 'If you haven't noticed, we're turning around. We are in stable condition - nothing out of the ordinary. If we need to land, we will do so in Antalya [Turkey] or Cyprus. There are many airports," recalled passenger Gila Sheetrit. Despite the pilot's calm demeanor, she said, some passengers began to fear for their own safety.

"There was tension, people were getting upset. Some passengers broke out crying," Sheetrit said, adding that many also burst into applause when the plane finally landed.

Also present on the flight was Shaul Ladani, the 100-kilometer speed-walking world champion of 1972, and still holder of the world record for the 50-mile. Nowadays he is professor of industry and management at Be'er Sheva's Ben-Gurion University.

"I don't know how the pilot felt, but the way he passed the message on to the passengers was a work of art," he said of the announcement that the plane would be turning back to the airport. "It was done very quietly. Still, only those who listened closely could understand that behind his words, he wasn't sure if we could land at an airport, or would have to crash into the sea," he said.

An Airports Authority official said the malfunction is under investigation: "We are investigating the incident, but according to the initial probe, upon the pilot's declaration of state of emergency 2, the rescue teams assembled according to plan from the neighboring communities."

"That said, we are capable of dealing with the crash of an aircraft, God forbid, until the arrival of external rescue teams," the official said.

Some passengers said the plane showed signs of being unfit for use even before takeoff, proof that flight staff were aware of potential malfunctions. "They told us in the morning, before takeoff, the delay was due to some missing part. They didn't elaborate," Ladani said. An Israir official maintained the delay was caused by the need to replace a component, and denied the flight staff had knowledge of any possible technical malfunctions.

"At no point was there perceived to be a danger to the passengers," the official said. State of emergency 2 involves alerting rescue teams from communities surrounding the airport, to participate in rescue efforts in the event of a crash landing.

An expert in air disasters told Haaretz, "the pilots attempted to land at an alternative airfield, such as Larnaca or Antalya [in Turkey]. However, when they saw that the oil pressure was falling slowly, they decided to continue to Israel. Only when they saw that the oil began to fall to dangerous levels did they apparently decide to turn off the engine, so as not to destroy it before the landing at Ben-Gurion."

The expert added that an aircraft does not need engine power in the final stages of landing, as it simply "coasts" toward the runway by its own momentum.

Haaretz has learned that the same aircraft model involved in Friday's incident was involved in a similar malfunction a year ago, also on a Berlin flight. In that incident, smoke began to rise from the fuselage, forcing staff to remove passengers on an inflated emergency slide. It later emerged that the source of the malfunction lay in the air conditioning system. An Israir representative told Haaretz there is no connection between the two incidents.