Bizarre case of the charter plane that could not turn left

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The Independent Online
Airtours, Britain's second largest tour operator, misled air- safety authorities over an emergency on an aircraft carrying almost 250 holidaymakers, when the pilot could not turn properly to the left during a four- hour flight.

Airtours has admitted to The Independent that an incident report sent to the Civil Aviation Authority was inaccurate because it implied the pilot had re-gained control over the aircraft, which had a maintenance worker's torch jammed in critical controls inside the wing.

The plane, on a holiday flight from the Canaries to East Midlands airport last year, was diverted and made an emergency landing at Manchester. When the crew several times tried to correct the problem by pushing hard against the controls to unjam the mechanism, the plane lurched in a 60-degree bank. Yet the mandatory occurrence report (MOR) which Airtours filed says the pilots managed to break through the jammed equipment so that it did not restrict handling of the aircraft. If an accurate report had been made, the Air Accident Investigation Branch would probably have made a full investigation and publicised its findings.

The near-disaster received no publicity and other airlines were not warned that one of the procedures employed by the crew, in accordance with Boeing's flight-operations manual, put the aircraft at risk of crashing.

Last night a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority said it would be contacting Airtours over the inaccuracy. The company did not publicise the incident in its internal newsletter, which is standard practice among airlines. When the Boeing 757 flight AIH 838, bound from Fuerteventura to East Midlands and Newcastle on 13 December, landed at Manchester, it was discovered that a torch left by a engineer employed by Monarch was blocking controls to the right aileron. The aileron, a wing flap, could not move downwards, which prevented the plane making a left-hand turn.

In the MOR filed by the company to the CAA, it says the plane landed "with QRH [quick-reference handbook] action achieving aileron break- out", implying that efforts of the crew disconnected the faulty aileron, allowing them to steer using other flaps.

In fact, this never occurred and the captain had great difficulty in bringing the aircraft down in windy conditions.

Colin Penny, Airtours Director of Flight Operations, admits the MOR was wrong, and initially said this was a result of information given by the captain, Ray Cockerton. However, after The Independent told the company it had seen Captain Cockerton's report, Captain Penny said the report was based "on information supplied by the engineering department."

When The Independent first contacted Airtours over the incident, its press officer, Sean Robinson, said there was "no emergency on the ground, only in the air", and that the aircraft could have landed at any UK airport but went to Manchester "because it is our maintenance base".

In fact, the pilot announced a full emergency and was unable to land elsewhere because of wind conditions and runway position.

Pilot's nightmare, page 3