Ethiopian Airlines Jet Malta incident: The anti-climax of an emergency landing

The Malta Independent

Saturday, January 17, 2009

It must be one of the most chilling announcements to hear on an aircraft when the captain comes onto the public address system to announce an emergency landing.

On the night between 10 and 11 January, one of the engines of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 757 failed as it was heading to Rome. Sam Francis was heading to the UK on that flight and recounts his experience inside this issue of The Malta Independent.

Sam describes his worry, attempts at rational thoughts during the whole escapade and the ensuing anti-climax that followed the safe touch down in Malta. He says that in the half hour or so of drama that ensued, it was nothing like one would imagine.

“No screams, no panic, just people who were groggy trying to come to terms with the fact that we were heading for an emergency landing that could have ended without incident, or with the plane slamming into the ground and killing us all,” says Mr Francis.

The Malta International Airport was the closest place where the aircraft could set down and due contact was made, resulting in permission to do so with the aircraft touched down at about 4.30pm

Getting through an emergency landing

During the early hours of last Sunday, the Malta International Airport received a distress call from an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 757 enroute to Rome. One of the engines on the aircraft had failed and the pilot requested to make an emergency landing in Malta. Permission was granted and with good fortune, the episode ended without incident. Michael Carabott asked SAM FRANCIS, who was on the flight, to recount his experience

The prelude

I would not like to call myself pessimistic but whenever I fly, I always assume that each journey could be my last so, provided I am in a position to see the aircraft I am boarding, I tend to give the aircraft a respectful look and hope that it will do its job and get me from point A to B without incident. So I did as I went up the staircase of a Boeing 757 at Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as we boarded Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 710, bound for London Heathrow via Rome Fumicino.

At the check-in desk, I had tried to get a window seat, but neither window nor aisle was available as it was a full flight and as I had changed my departure from Friday night to Saturday night, I was not being afforded any priority as I was not exactly checking in very early. So I settled into Row 31, well to the rear of the plane. We took off at precisely 1am Ethiopian time. The take-off was uneventful and we disappeared into the night, Addis Ababa now turning into distant shimmering lights and disappearing from view after about 20 minutes.

Although not particularly hungry, I was very tired and planned to sleep immediately after the pre-packed and overheated meal, which seemed to take ages to come. As soon as I had eaten, I settled down for the long haul across the Sahara via Northern Ethiopia, Sudan, the Southwestern tip of Egypt and finally, overflying Benghazi in Libya before tackling the Mediterranean Sea to the 45-minute stopover in Rome at Fiumicino Airport. I must have been long asleep before we even reached Sudan and kept dosing on and off as I kept searching for comfort in economy class. What an irony, I thought.

Fast forward a few hours, five to be precise, and as I had not bothered changing my time back to Greenwich Meantime yet, it was 6am in Ethiopia, when something woke me up. It was either the cabin lights being switched on or the sound that accompanies the “Fasten Your Seat Belt” sign being switched on. It might even have been the captain’s voice coming over the public address system or a combination of all the above.

The announcement

As is customary on Ethiopian Airline flights the address is always first in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, then English. Although groggy from sleep, I quite clearly picked up the words that my average grasp of Amharic told me that there was some problem with the aircraft but, this was followed immediately by “mnm cheger yellem”, Amharic to say “there is not a problem.” The English version confirmed my initial understanding. To the best of my recollection this is what the captain said: “Ladies and gentleman we have had to shut down one of the engines as a precaution. This is normal procedure. We will now fly to Malta on one engine. This is not a problem. We will start our descent soon. Flight time will be 35 minutes.”

Well, there was no cause for alarm, was there really, if twin-engined aircraft like757s And 767s are equipped to fly on one engine and the captain had given us reassurance about the non-existence of a problem.

On reflection, it was like going to the doctor and being told “this won’t hurt,” before being given an injection. Smashing onto the ground at more than 200 kilometres per hour on landing sure would hurt; it might even kill most of the passengers and crew.

Something more serious than the captain had hinted at was obviously happening when I noticed one of the flight attendants frantically knocking on the two lavatory doors that were only three to four rows ahead of row 31, to get the occupants out. I thought to myself, “Since when have passengers being forced out of the toilets in this fashion? Perhaps the poor occupants have just gone in and are in the middle of something that might take them some time. Will they come out instantly or will they just assume that someone is being rude to them and continue taking their time?”

Nearly everyone else, I could see, was either waking up or struggling to stay awake. There was a visible effort on part of the cabin crew to ensure that every passenger was belted up.

So in our collective semi-comatose state we flew onward rather uneventfully, except for a bit of turbulence here and there. Having been asleep it was hard to say whether the aircraft sounded much quieter for the absence of one engine sound or not but no one appeared to panic. We were like lambs to the slaughter, I felt. Eventually, the inevitable arrived. We were now going to land in Malta as announced about half an hour earlier. It was 4.30 local time.

The landing

“Cabin crew take your seats for landing!” required no Amharic translation. We were now possibly within 50 feet of the ground. We were not asked to adopt or maintain any brace position for landing, which I thought strange, as this was no ordinary landing. So I had what I considered, one last look as the ground approached. Outwardly I was calm, but inwardly my mind was working 30 to the dozen – overtime, that is. My limited knowledge of aircraft informed me that in order to balance the thrust of the working engine, the pilots had to use the rudder by pitching it so that it would apply a force equal to that being applied by the working engine in order to enable the aircraft to fly in a straight line.

How about landing, ailerons, elevators, brakes… How would the whole thing work? Never mind, too late to figure that one out… Five, four, three, two, one I was counting down to touchdown trying to anticipate the landing gear or undercarriage coming into contact with the ground… Wheels! I thought, this was not a moment for complicated technical terms. Then we hit the runway fairly softly and if not for a slight swerve and what appeared to be a swerve to one side, followed by immediate correction, it could well have been a textbook landing.

This was followed by the unmistakable roar of the thrust reversers as they and the brakes struggled to bring the jumbo under control and slowly but surely the speed came down until we were going at about what appeared to be no more than 30 miles per hour.


Now, for the uninitiated, it is customary for travellers to Addis Ababa, especially Ethiopians, to applaud any landing, especially if it is good one. But, good, bad or average, the cheering is more out of the joy of reaching one’s motherland safely. The eerie silence that greeted this particular landing was contrary to what would have been expected on this occasion. It should have been shattered by shouting, screams, leaps of joy and tears of relief. But neither in myself or in all the other passengers was this apparent. There was no palpable sense of relief. And then, as if to emphasise the gravity of the situation, the fire engines with their flashing blue lights came into view, all facing the runway we were using. And there were amber lights as well from the service vehicles.

As soon as the aircraft stopped on the hard stand, the emergency vehicles arrived. From within the aircraft, I observed concerned looks and frantic waving on the ground. The military and the police were there too.

Then without further ado, came the announcement that, due to a technical failure, all passengers were to alight with all their hand luggage. Further announcements would be made, we were promised, but that was to be the last announcement from Ethiopian Airlines. This was not your typical evacuation of panic and pandemonium, but an orderly quiet and measured exit. Then, we were bussed and shepherded to the departure lounge at Malta International Airport.

This orderly fashion of things belied the fact that we had just had an emergency landing and should have been, prior to making the successful landing, being saying our prayers and having any potential last thoughts.

Air Malta

It was to be another four hours before those of us that were London-bound were to be seated in the next available Air Malta flight to Heathrow. Problem is Ethiopian Airlines passed on the passenger manifest to Air Malta, but all it had was names and no onward destinations making it very difficult for Air Malta, who went beyond the extra mile, to accommodate a problem that was not really of their origin within their scheduled flights.

Attempting to cater for the rest of the now “ex-Ethiopian Airlines” passengers as we were now referred to was a nightmare. There were families with young children and people with medical conditions and business class travellers, and those who needed to connect from London Heathrow to the rest of the world, America, Europe who some by this time, had already missed their connections and had to be seen to before other passengers. It was apparent they had to throw the rule book out a few times.

We were allowed to go the wrong way up the immigration channels and it was so exasperating with an Air Malta Flight to London literally on hold for us, that at one point the lady who was helping us decided that she had to attend to another task elsewhere. When she left the check-in desk at Gate 14, we joked that she had gone to have a quiet nervous breakdown and take Valium tablets “by the handful” and we all burst out laughing.

It was quiet relief for tortured souls.
Ethiopian Airlines Explains Recent Emergency Landing in Malta
Source: Press Release from Ethiopian Airlines

Status of ET-710 ADD-ROM/11 January 2009

January 13, 2009

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Ethiopian Airlines flight ET -710 departed from Addis Ababa on January 11, 2009 at 0049 local time.

The B757-200 was scheduled to fly to Rome Fiumicino International Airport.

When low oil pressure light of the right engine was displayed in the cockpit panel, the flying crew immediately decided to take an emergency measure and safely landed the aircraft at a near by Malta International Airport, which is a planned enroute alternate airport. All the passengers were safely disembarked per the normal procedure.

Ethiopian Airlines’ technical experts were soon dispatched from Rome, the nearest location to Malta. They performed the necessary technical maintenance on the engine and the aircraft flew back to Addis Ababa and continued its scheduled services.

Related: Ethiopian Airlines Jet makes emergency landing in Malta
Times of Malta

Sunday, 11th January 2009

An Ethiopian Boeing 757 airliner made an emergency landing at Malta International Airport this morning after one of its two engines failed, sources said.

The Boeing 757 was on a flight from Addis Ababa to Rome Fiumicino when it declared an emergency and diverted to Malta.

The Health Department was immediately informed and an emergency plan was put in place. Two ambulances were sent on site and all the doctors and nurses at the Emergency Department at Mater Dei Hospital as well as those at the four main health centres and at St Vincent De Paul, were prepared to handle any possible injuries.

The plane landed safely at 4.30 a.m.


















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