DENNIS OKEYO | nation KQ pilot Albert Mureithi, 38, during the interview this week, days after he brought home KQ 701 safely despite a missing rear tyre. The plane had 96 passengers and six crew members.
The pilot who successfully landed a Kenya Airways flight that lost a tyre in the air last Friday says he did not fear it would end in disaster.
“I did not fear for any disaster. We had planned for both scenarios – landing with one tyre or none at all. I knew if handled well there was no cause for alarm. I was confident,” Captain Albert Mureithi told the Saturday Nation on Thursday.
He had just switched the plane on to the autopilot when the traffic control tower at the Harare International Airport alerted him that he had dropped ‘something’. The officer did not elaborate, and Mureithi turned to his co-pilot, Mr Vincent Ndinya, wondering what they could possibly have dropped.
“That was the only time during the episode that was to last slightly more than three hours when I was a bit worried because from the traffic control tower, they were not telling me what the problem was. At that point I thought about my family of ten years and my 96 passengers as well as five members of my crew,” Mr Mureithi said.
His first reaction was to look at the controls in the cockpit, which showed the aircraft was functioning well.
The traffic controller called back 10 minutes later, saying they had dropped a tyre– but could not divulge more details until engineers examined it. Then the questions started flooding his mind. What if they had lost all the tyres? What were the safest options to land? Should they turn back to Harare or continue with the flight?
“My first task was to make a decision whether to return to Harare or continue flying to Nairobi. From my training I knew that with one or both tyres under the wing missing, I had to land as light as possible. After consulting with my first officer, we arrived at the decision to fly to Nairobi,” he says.
They decided to do this because to make the aircraft light enough to land it had to burn the fuel and the distance to Nairobi would give the airport authorities time to prepare for an emergency landing.
Reclining on his seat, Captain Mureithi says they had a fallback plan of flying to Lilongwe, Dar es Salaam or Mombasa airports.
“There were some people I had to tell share this information with immediately. The first officer already knew so I had to tell the flight purser who is in charge of the cabin services and safety. There were three flight attendants who also needed to know so that they could also advise passengers and prepare them psychologically,” said Mr Mureithi.
The pilot is all praises for the crew, whom he says absorbed the news calmly, and continued working as if there was no crisis.
“They were very professional and continued with their normal service,” he said.
There was also an engineer on board and Mr Mureithi roped him into the decision making.
“Although I had my own ideas about the landing gears in either scenario I also needed his expert technical take,” he said.
With all the key issues sorted, the captain saved the most important call for last: informing passengers of the imminent emergency landing.
“I knew we had three hours to fly. It is important to know how and when to deliver such information,” explained Mr Mureithi.
He decided to inform passengers just when the aeroplane was entering Kenyan airspace, two and half hours after the incident.
He told them that they had lost a tyre on takeoff from Harare. He also told them that the emergency crew was ready at the airport to ensure a safe landing.
“I also informed them that the people on the ground at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport will allow us to fly past the tower with our gears down to establish their condition.
‘‘I could not do all these manoeuvres without telling them because it could easily have created tension and panic,” said Mr Mureithi.
He repeated the messages in English and Kiswahili and ended by asking them to cooperate with the cabin crew. “I think they took it very calmly and were very cooperative. I think when they looked at the crew and called them for questioning, they were surprised that the crew knew it a few minutes after takeoff from Harare,” said Mr Mureithi.
The situation was made easier for the crew by a passenger who, looking at one of the crew members, said: “You knew all along there was a problem and you were still smiling and serving us. Then I think we will be okay.”
As the plane egged closer to the airport a technical team on the ground led by Kenya Airways flight director Paul Mwangi went up to the tower and the controller instructed the pilot to conduct a fly past. The team established that it was only the one tyre that was missing and they discussed the landing options.
The pilot says this was a most delicate moment. If the plane came down too fast, there was a risk the remaining tyre could burst or the wing touching the runaway with disastrous consequences.
“So I came down to the runaway, put the initial weight and high speed on the good side of the tyres by tilting to the left. Gently, I let the plane lose as much speed as possible before landing on the remaining tyre,” recalled Mr Mureithi.
The emergency crew had warned against taxiing on landing, and Mr Mureithi sighed with relief when the plane ground to a halt.
“The emergency crew was very efficient and quick. They advised us to stop taxiing. I just wanted to go home. After landing we could not taxi and I was asked to stop on the taxi way. We were about 3km from the passenger terminal but they had prepared busses to pick us. We were all relieved.”
To his pleasant surprise, the passengers looked more curious than worried when they came off the plane.
“They were actually talking pictures as they disembarked. I tried to meet as many of them as possible and shake their hands as they disembarked to give them some reassurance. About 90 per cent looking okay and calm and relieved,” he said.
When the last passenger boarded the bus to the arrivals terminal, Mr Mureithi and his crew received a thumbs-up from the technical team.
“We were given some days off. I resumed work on Tuesday when I flew to Mombasa. On Thursday I went to Yaoundé for an overnight flight and I came back this morning (Friday)”.
Mr Mureithi smiles shyly when asked how he was received home.
“Apparently it is a small world. My wife, Esther, had known what had happened. She told me as much and thanked God it ended well,” says the father of three boys aged between five and ten.
As we wrap up the interview, the pilot sinks into a pensive mood. He says the incident reminded him of two tragic accidents in the 1970s. The first was 1972 when a Loki Tri-Star flight crushed after the nose gear jammed mid-air.
The second was in 1978 when the landing gear of a US flight failed to deploy in Portland. The ground crew took long preparing for an emergency landing and the flight ran out of fuel.
Today, Captain Mureithi is flying to Egypt, but is still eager to know what went went wrong. “The Kenya Airways Managing Director, has assured me that he will let me know personally. It has never happened in all the years I have flown,” Mr Mureithi said.
Mr Mureithi credits the control tower in Harare for paying attention to what was happening and identified a problem they would otherwise have not known until it was too late.