El Al Plane Nearly Crashed Close to Jerusalem Hills

Returning from Europe with hundreds on board, plane descended lower than permitted altitude.

An El Al passenger flight nearly crashed in the hills near Jerusalem last November, due to a pilot error that has now led to the flight captain's demotion.

The incident, which is being reported here for the first time, occurred while the plane was landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. It is currently being investigated by the Ministry of Transportation's Civil Aviation Authority.

The wide-bodied Boeing 767 jet was returning from Europe with hundreds of passengers on board. As it was circling prior to landing at Ben-Gurion, the pilot initiated a descent that brought the plane lower than the permitted altitude. At the time, he was over Modi'in, which is located in the Judean Hills. A source in the Civil Aviation Authority therefore characterized the maneuver as dangerous, saying the pilot could have hit a hillside.

An accident was only averted at the last minute, when the cockpit crew recognized the danger and regained altitude.

"This was a breach of safety procedures that could have resulted in mass casualties," the Civil Aviation Authority source noted. "It's very serious and should be treated as a near miss."

Union backs pilot

Following the incident, El Al's management sought to institute severe sanctions against the pilot. However, the El Al pilots union, backed by the Israel Air Pilots Association, objected strenuously. The parties therefore ultimately reached a compromise under which the pilot would only be allowed to work as a copilot, rather than as captain, for several months, until he completes additional professional training and requalifies as a captain.

In response, El Al said: "El Al has attached the greatest importance to flight safety and the safety of our passengers ever since the airline was founded. Because of the improper conduct of the captain of the Boeing 767, El Al decided to involve the relevant professional authorities. The pilot was grounded, and the authorities have agreed that for a period of four months, he is to be downgraded to copilot, after which he will have to requalify as captain. The safety of the passengers and crew were at no time endangered during the incident."

The chairman of the Israel Air Pilots Association, Boaz Hativa, said that his organization and the El Al pilots union got involved "to ensure that the matter was handled in a businesslike, professional manner, in accordance with the law and with international aviation conventions to which Israel is a party."

Israel addresses FAA downgrade

In February 2007, another accident was narrowly averted when a pilot from the Spanish carrier Iberia almost collided with an El Al plane as both were preparing for takeoff. The planes changed course to avoid crashing.

At the end of last year, the American Federal Aviation Administration downgraded Israel's aviation safety rating to Category 2, which is commonly assigned to developing countries. In response to the lower rating, the Civil Aviation Authority created a new administrative body to deal with the deficiencies cited by the FAA. The department is headed by a former vice president of El Al, Benny Livneh.