It took three attempts for Emirates A380 pilots to land the superjumbo in Domodedovo International Airport, Moscow, back in September 2017. While the flight crew did not see two go arounds as an extreme situation, the authorities did. They classified the occurrence as a ‘serious incident’, highlighting that the double-decker, carrying 448 people onboard, was dangerously close to even bigger problems, as it went below minimum altitude at some point.

Emirates A380 gets dangerously close to ground

On September 10, 2017, Emirates flight EK131 was incoming from Dubai (DXB), the UAE, to Domodedovo International Airport (DME) in Moscow, Russia. The airline’s three-year old Airbus A380 (registration number A6-EEZ) was carrying 448 people onboard, including two pilots, 24 cabin crew and 422 passengers. 

Having reached the destination airport in Moscow, the aircraft was cleared for approach on the 14R runway and was on the base leg, when it descended below its cleared altitude of 500 meters. Neither pilot was aware that the aircraft was below this point, and found it out only after the Radar Controller warned them to stop the descent, as outlined in the investigator’s report. 

The A380 flight crew performed a go-around and took a second attempt to land. However, this approach did not go according to the plan either. During the go-around, the minimum radio altitude reached 395 feet above ground level, activating aircraft alerts. When the superjumbo was on the final leg, the flight plan disappeared from the Flight management system leaving a blank screen and forcing the pilots to concentrate their attention to problem solving. They discontinued the approach and performed another go-around, after which they finally landed on the 14R runway ‒ on the third try. 

Contrary to the investigators, the flight crew did not consider the event to be a serious incident, as outlined in the report. While the pilots informed Emirates about the event, they did it when the A380 was already on the return flight. As the cockpit voice recorder had two-hour recording capability, due to the delay the recording from the incident was overwritten. 

Three takeaways from final EK131 report

Following three years of investigation, on April 16, 2020, the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) issued a final report on Emirates flight EK131, outlining six safety recommendations to Emirates, Airbus, and Domodedovo’s Air Traffic Control. Among them:

For Air Control ‒ speak less but clearer. When the controller noticed that the A380 had descended below 500 meters, they “could have transmitted a shorter urgent instruction in standard terminology”, which essentially would have given the pilots more time to react. Thus, “[...] emphasize to the Controllers to use only standard terminology in all communications,” the authorities recommended to ATC heads.

For Airbus ‒ use stronger language. In the Flight Crew Operating Manuals, Airbus outlines that the glide interception from above procedure should only be applied when the Aircraft is established on the localizer. The authorities found the term should not being “strong enough”. They recommended to Airbus to update the operations manual to emphasize that A380 pilots must ensure the aircraft is established on the localizer before applying the glide interception from above procedure. 

For Emirates ‒ do not wait for Airbus, train your staff now. Addressing the operator, Emirates, the investigators outlined that operations and training manuals should include additional information, until Airbus revises system description and procedures. In particular, the manuals should outline the information about the possibility of multi-waypoint sequencing of the flight plan and the flight management system (FMS) auto-reset, which can occur during a missed approach. This sequence of events requires reconfiguration of the FMS flight plan by inserting the required ILS approach to adjust the flight plan sequencing. 

You can read the full incident report and find all six of the safety recommendations here