A Tui aircraft experienced a “serious incident” before landing in September, according to a report published by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), which links the near-miss to a possible lack of flying hours.
The incident on 11 September saw a Boeing 737-800 have to make a “go-around” when descending into Aberdeen after a flight from Palma, because a search and rescue helicopter needed to take off in the area.
During the go-around the plane “deviated significantly from the expected flight path, initially climbing, but just before it reached the cleared altitude began to descend”, says a special bulletin published by the AAIB.
Air Traffic Control had told the pilot to climb to 3,000ft above sea level and turn left before making a second approach, but as it neared that altitude, the plane began an unexpected descent.
Air accident investigators are examining whether the incident could have been linked to a lack of pilot flying hours, due to travel being shut down by the pandemic.
“The pilots, like many other airline pilots, had not flown for substantial periods during the 18 months before this incident,” said the AAIB bulletin.
“Although the investigation has not established a link between this serious incident and a lack of recent line flying, it is clearly a possibility.”
While there is a legal requirement for pilots to complete three take-offs and landings within 90 days, the report said, there is no rule around crews actually having to operate the aircraft.
The investigation body published details of the incident, it says, to “raise awareness”.
In response, the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) called on the government to create a “winter resilience fund” to aid with airlines’ training while global flights remain reduced.
“Just like riding a bike, if you climb back on after a period away, it only takes a short practice to be able to manipulate the bike – set off, turn and stop – just as well as you had before.
“However, your roadcraft – the anticipation of what others are going to do, for example – takes time and practice to reacquire,” said Balpa general secretary Martin Chalk.
“Although many of our airlines have recognised this and provided extra practice and simulator time, there have also been commercial pressures which act in the opposite direction.”
Chalk said a fund would “allow our cash-strapped airlines the ability to provide extra training and experience to avoid any degradation of aviation’s enviable safety standards.”
A spokesperson for Tui said: “We have worked closely with the AAIB throughout this investigation and will continue to do so until a final report is published.
“The health and safety of our customers and crew is always our primary concern and we would like to reassure all customers and crew that the safety of the aircraft was assured throughout this flight.
“We provide training that exceeds all regulatory requirements, this includes the additional refresher and recency training completed by all pilots prior to flights being undertaken.”