Head to Head / Pilot David Kenet, Were Passengers Aboard Your Plane at Risk Yesterday?

An interview with the pilot of the El Al Boeing 777 with 259 passengers on board that was forced to make an emergency landing at Ben-Gurion Airport Monday.

An El Al Boeing 777 with 259 passengers on board was forced to make an emergency landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport early Monday after warning signals indicated a technical malfunction in the device connecting the wheels of the plane to the fuselage shortly after takeoff.

Pilot David Kenet, were the passengers at risk?

Pilot David Kenet
Nir Kafri

In a malfunction of this kind, there are different scenarios. In an extreme scenario there is a situation that could present a danger to passengers. If the malfunction indicates the possibility of collapse of the wheel well then there may be a danger present. I stress - this is in an extreme scenario of this type of malfunction. We hoped that there were optimistic scenarios. Usually, there are false warnings or indicator warnings and the situation does not get to an extreme scenario. Because we do not compromise on safety and security, we prepared for all possibilities and the extreme scenario was one of them.

Were you scared?

No. We train on simulators and we trained specifically for such a malfunction in the past. The only thing is that the landing has to be cautious and requires maximum concentration on things that do not exist in a normal landing.

Such as what?

The landing has to be very gentle; it must be done manually and not automatically; the pilots have to be on the alert for additional phenomena that can occur as a result of the malfunction. We practice all of these things on a simulator for many hours a year."

What was going on in the passenger cabin? Was there panic on the plane?

No. This is not rhetoric; there was an excellent crew ... I went out of the cockpit a few times to check the situation among the passengers. I saw passengers sleeping peacefully. The flight attendants served food. There was no time crunch. The malfunction was reported to the passengers as it was. I also think there was no reason to worry, beyond what we were worrying about. We also worried about the extreme scenarios, but only in the event that we would need to. We also instructed passengers regarding the possibility that we would have to evacuate the plane using the emergency slides in case something happened to the wheel. After the landing, most of the passengers gathered next to the stairs. I saw happy passengers. No one looked to me to be in a tense state.

What really happened in the air?

After the takeoff, we received a computer notification that there was some kind of malfunction. On a sophisticated plane like the Boeing 777 you receive the precise solution to the malfunction. The solution is not always the same and you have to do a deeper analysis of the malfunction. In our case, immediately after the takeoff and retraction of the wheels, we received notice that one wheel well was not locked in the "upper position." It was one of the main wheel wells on the left side; there are three on the plane: two main ones on which the plane stands and one forward one: each wheel well has six wheels on each side. This type of malfunction does not require any immediate action. Certainly not when the flight is headed to Newark, New Jersey and takes 12 hours. There was enough fuel and therefore as far as time, we had all the time in the world to deal with the malfunction calmly, consider all the possibilities, and look at all the scenarios that might result from this malfunction.

Is this a routine malfunction?

The malfunction was not standard. We are not used to seeing such things and it is a rather rare malfunction, certainly on a Boeing 777, which is the newest model and usually does not experience malfunctions. We headed toward the sea and decided to see what would happen when we put the wheels down. It turned out that when the wheels were in landing position, the indicators showed that the wheels were in the intermediate position and it is possible that the wheels were not "locked downward." We had enough time to check the plane manuals and analyze the malfunction while in flight; we were not in a rush as far as time. An analysis of the malfunction showed that the wheels were locked in the down position but one of the bars supporting the left wheel was not locked. In every important system, there is a backup. In this situation, it is not possible to see the wheel, certainly not at night. There are a number of possibilities for such a warning indicator."

What did you do at this point?

We had time to consult with El Al's maintenance branch, which was in contact with the plane manufacturer, Boeing, during the night, while this was going on; we had people to consult with - all the experts at El Al, the chief pilots and flight managers who were summoned to the airport. In this respect, we were not anxious. We had enough fuel to circle and plan to empty the tanks for what came next. As for the passengers, because on a 777 the passengers see exactly where the plane is and there are screens, immediately after we accelerated toward the sea, I notified the passengers of the malfunction and that we planned to circle over the sea and probably return for a landing at Ben-Gurion Airport.

When did you decide to return to Ben-Gurion?

The moment the wheels are in a down position there is huge drag on the plane. There is not enough fuel to reach Newark in that situation. No way. We remained with the wheels down, because we did not want to take a risk. It was clear immediately when we lowered the wheels and there was a problem with them, it was clear that we were staying at Ben-Gurion Airport.

What happens when you declare an emergency?

Ben-Gurion Airport has set procedures depending on the number of passengers aboard the plane. There are clear procedures regarding what to do in such a case ... In consultation with the crew, we decided to delay the landing until the morning, so that it would be easier and safer for the rescue teams to work in daylight and not in the dark. We checked into the exact time of sunrise, which was at 5:40 A.M. We decided on a landing time of 5:20 A.M. because of the light conditions - so that the sun would not be blinding during the landing; we knew that we would be landing facing east.

Why was a fighter jet scrambled to the plane?

When there are malfunctions in the wheel wells it is standard practice to scramble air force jets to look at the wheels from below and to get another outside opinion. The jet actually saw that the wheel was not locked. That means a very bad scenario, but we were calm because an analysis of the malfunction with the maintenance people and based on what we read in the manual, we realized that the wheel was locked and the problem was with the rod.

What lessons did you draw from his incident?

We learn something from every incident. The plane, by nature, just like every mechanical device, occasionally experiences malfunctions. The plane is very sophisticated and addresses most possibilities. We operated in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. The positive lesson I learned is from the broad cooperation I received from all branches of the company - even within the flight crew and among the flight attendants. The best proof is that the emergency landing took place quietly and without panic. We explained to the passengers what is happening. There was preparedness; no stress.