6 seconds from disaster: A near miss over Hong Kong

Hong Kong aviation authorities are investigating an incident that occurred on 18 September in which two aircraft nearly collided over Hong Kong.


Cathay Pacific B777 6 seconds from disaster


6 seconds from disaster: A near miss over Hong Kong

Hong Kong aviation authorities are investigating an incident that occurred on 18 September in which two aircraft nearly collided over Hong Kong. The incident only became public after it was leaked to one of Hong Kong’s English newspapers, The Standard. The two aircraft – a Cathay Pacific B777 arriving from New York and a Dragonair A330 from Taiwan – carrying a total of more than 600 passengers and crew were within six seconds of collision according to a former Hong Kong aviation official quoted by the newspaper. According to a statement issued by Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department, the Cathay Pacific Airways flight that was bound for Hong Kong International Airport came within one nautical mile (two km) of the Dragonair flight that was in a holding pattern for landing. The international standard for separation between aircraft is five nautical miles (9.26 kilometers) horizontally, or 1,000 feet (304 Luxemburg-based all-cargo carrier, Cargolux stunned Boeing and the air cargo industry in general last month when, only a handful of days before it was due to take delivery of the first of 13 of Boeing’s new B747-8 freighters it has ordered, it announced it was rejecting the first two aircraft. The carrier informed Boeing by letter on 16 September, calling off the handover and three-day celebration scheduled for 19-21 September, citing what it said were “unresolved contractual issues” with Boeing. The decision represented yet another bump in what has not been a smooth road for the 747-8 programme that has faced more than a year of delays due to production and design problems. The new ‘super-sized’ jumbo was initially scheduled for delivery in 2009, with Boeing forced to compensate customers for the production delays. Cargolux said financing of the aircraft, secured through JP Morgan as an Ex-Im Bank guaranteed lender, was put on hold pending resolution of the contractual issues. The carrier added, in the tersely worded statement that: “In the event that the issues cannot be resolved in a timely manner, Cargolux will source alternative capacity to fully meet customer demand and expectations ahead of the traditional high season.” Neither Boeing nor Cargolux has commented on the exact nature of the contractual dispute, but industry players believe it centres around performance guarantees over aircraft weight and fuel burn efficiency. The stunning last minute rejection of the aircraft came only a day after the head of Qatar Airways, chief executive Akbar Al-Baker, took a board seat at Cargolux following the Gulf airline’s decision to take a 35 per cent stake in the maindeck cargo carrier. Al-Baker, who has quickly made a name for himself in the airline industry for being an outspoken protagonist of the Gulf carrier’s increasingly prominent role in the world airline order, is widely believed to be a key factor in this fracas. Some industry analysts say the Cargolux delivery has become embroiled in a wider dispute between Qatar Airways and Boeing over late-delivery penalties for the 787 Dreamliner, which has also faced numerous delays. Atlas also rejects And, in what has been seen as another blow to Boeing, Atlas Air has cancelled the metres vertically), the department said. The incident happened during a stormy afternoon when aircraft were stacked up for landing over Hong Kong, the department said. An air traffic controller was working to shuffle waiting aircraft around so that the Cathay Pacific flight, which was low on fuel, could land more quickly. At that point the controllers noticed the flights were too close. The pilots of both aircraft failed to respond to commands to change course at one point or another during the incident, the department said. Collision avoidance systems on both aircraft activated after the crew of the Cathay Pacific flight failed to respond to a command to climb to a higher altitude. Cathay Pacific said in a statement that “both Cathay Pacific and Dragonair pilots had taken appropriate actions under the circumstances to re-establish standard separation between the two aircraft.” Following the automatic alert, the Dragonair pilot put his aircraft into an immediate climb while the Cathay flight descended to resolve the conflict. The pilots could see each other’s aircraft during the incident and there was no risk of collision, the department and Cathay Pacific said. But The Standard quoted Hong Kong’s former civil aviation chief Albert Lam Kwong-yu as saying that, based on normal speeds of the airliners involved, they were about six seconds from colliding. “The chance of a crash is absolutely high,” the paper quoted Lam as saying. “The passengers really came back from hell.” Investigators have ruled out air traffic controller fatigue as a cause of the near-collision, the department said. The air controller in charge of the flights was appropriately rested and has since returned to work, the agency said adding that investigors will examine air traffic procedures, staffing levels and flight crew operations.