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Cobham takes off with tail strut in Benny Hill-esque incident

You thought only James Bond or Tom Cruise could catch up with a departing plane?… you were right. After a captain and an engineer failed to comply with checklist procedures, a freighter began its take-off roll with a tail strut still attached. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau released its final report into the incident.

On January 22, 2019, a Cobham Aviation Services British Aerospace 146-300 freighter, registered VH-NJZ, was carrying out a scheduled cargo flight from Melbourne Airport (MEL) to Brisbane (BNE) with a leg in Sydney (SYD).

Upon landing in Sydney, a trail strut was attached to the rear of the aircraft, before the cargo operations commenced. Once the aircraft was loaded, the captain proceeded to a visual inspection of the exterior and the engineer secured the cargo door. However, the ATSB report points out that the pre-departure checklist was not done “in a challenge-and-response manner”, which resulted in a “missed opportunity to detect the tail strut’s presence prior to departure.”

The freighter taxied to the runway with the trail strut still installed. At the same time, a technician from another company, who had just arrived on the apron, warned Cobham’s engineer of the oversight. In a very Benny Hill-esque scene, “the engineer began pursuing the aircraft on foot, and attempted to attract the captain’s attention by waving his arms and shouting,” but to no avail. 

He then jumped onto a tug vehicle with another ground staff member and initiated a pursuit, while calling the National Jet Express Maintenance Watch to warn the crew. They “relayed the message to National Jet Express Operations, who in turn attempted unsuccessfully to contact both pilots by mobile phone.” But the pilots did not pick up. “The captain reported that during the take-off roll, he felt his phone vibrating in his pocket but did not answer as he was concentrating on the departure,” states the report.

Unable to contact the control tower himself, he approached a nearby works safety officer. But as he instructed him to call the pilots, the aircraft arrived at runway 16R, powered up, and departed. The tail-stand detached during the take-off roll, leaving potentially dangerous foreign object debris.

Subsequently, the runway was briefly closed and the tail strut was recovered. The pilot was contacted and informed of the mishap. The engineer confirmed that the whole tail strut had been found and that nothing remained attached to the aircraft. However, on arrival in Brisbane, air traffic control still requested the BAe 146-300 to land on an alternate runway. Upon inspection, it was found that the aircraft did not suffer any damage.

Following the incident, the ATSB identified two main discrepancies:

  • During pre-departure checks, the full checklist between the captain and engineer was not completed. This negated the value of the checklist as a risk control and resulted in a missed opportunity to identify that the tail strut was still attached to the aircraft prior to it departing the bay. 

  • The engineer had no effective means or procedure to contact the flight crew while the aircraft was taxiing. As a result, the flight crew were not alerted to the error prior to take-off.

However, no safety recommendation was issued, as Cobham Aviation Services proactively took measures to avoid any repetition. A Safety Alert and an email were sent to relevant staff in order to remind them of checklist procedures, and a number was given to engineers in order to reach control towers.

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