An Emirates A380 Had A Dangerously Low Approach At JFK

Filed Under: Emirates

For every actual aviation disaster, there are a countless number of incidents that have a better ending. Aviation safety authorities learn from every incident, and changes are made to be sure they don’t happen again. For example, in July there was a close call at SFO that involved an Air Canada A320 on approach that nearly landed on a taxiway that had four aircraft on it. Even though this mostly seemed to come down to pilot error, changes were made at SFO to prevent something like this from happening again.

The Aviation Herald is one of my favorite sites for tracking aviation incidents that we don’t otherwise hear about, ranging from bird strikes to engine failures to all kinds of other stuff. Most of them aren’t all that interesting, though The Aviation Herald reported this weekend on an incident that happened with an Emirates A380 approaching New York JFK Airport on December 4, 2017.

You may be thinking to yourself “wait, wasn’t there recently a story of an Emirates A380 having a dangerously low approach?” There was indeed. In September I wrote about the approach an Emirates A380 had at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. The plane was 400 feet above ground level eight nautical miles from the runway, with a heading that was nowhere close to aligning with the runway. While this isn’t quite as terrible (because that was just screwed up on so many levels), there’s a similar story, this time around involving JFK.

So what happened this time around? An Emirates A380 (operating flight EK207 from Dubai to New York) was on final approach to runway 13L, following the standard Canarsie approach, which requires a 90 degree turn on very short final. About 2.5 nautical miles from the runway the air traffic controller advised the pilots that they were extremely low on approach, at which point the crew initiated a go around.

Just how low was the Emirates A380? Per The Aviation Herald:

The FAA radar data suggest the aircraft was at 200 feet AGL at the lowest point. The Webtrak data produced by the airport authority show the aircraft at 338 feet MSL at its lowest point.

We’re not sure which data is accurate, but if it was anywhere in the range of 200-338 feet, that’s insanely low. Keep in mind that this wasn’t even a straight approach, but the plane was making a sharp turn to line up with the runway. For reference, the wingspan of an A380 is 262 feet, so the plane was potentially less than a wingspan from the ground while making a sharp turn.

I don’t want to draw too many conclusions here, though we did have two major accidents in the UAE last year, one with FlyDubai and one with Emirates. If there’s one very common complaint from pilots in the UAE that has emerged from both of these incidents, it’s the terrible fatigue pilots in the UAE are subjected to with their scheduling, given that they often fly in the middle of the night, operate ultra longhaul flights, don’t get many days off, etc.

Stories like this are certainly alarming, especially as it’s the second such story in a short period. However, I do think it’s worth acknowledging that typically a story like this would never otherwise be reported on in the mainstream media, so this happens a lot more often than you’d think. Like I said at the beginning of the post, for every major incident there are a lot of other incidents that we’ll never hear about…

  1. @Lucky Interesting read but I wouldn’t call this an incident. How come close call car accidents are never reported ?

  2. Lucky, you should probably never fly Emirates again. Ever. In any case you know much more about flying than all of their pilots I think. Also you always get the full information on these incidents, being an aviation god/guru.

    At the very least you should contact the chief pilot of Emirates to give him a heads up ( and a talking to)

  3. It’s sad you get beat up for posts like this. Brush it off my friend. Haters gunna hate. I enjoyed the article. Thank you.

  4. @ Justin H — I think there’s a difference between a near incident with an A380 and a near incident with a car. We’re talking about a couple of people vs. hundreds of people.

  5. @ Andy — Not sure why the attitude? I found it to be an interesting story, I’m not suggesting I know more than anyone here. Just passing on the story. Pilots, like all other humans, make mistakes.

    I’m curious, do you also think the Moscow story was a non-event and not interesting in the least?

  6. Note MSL is mean sea level. Depending on the elevation of ground, the two data point might actually agree. But in any case they should not be used as a range as they are different concepts.

  7. @Lucky

    it’s good to come on here knowing we get not only the points/awards talk, but also news like this (or even the one you got running re. complaint to DOT). Not everyone has the time to browse all the websites for these types of information. So, thank you!

  8. @Norman – JFK is about 13 Feet above sea level and I’m sure it’s surrounding land is near that number so the amount of feet from the ground/sea level is marginally different.

  9. Pure sensationalism. Moscow was a series of lapses and human errors that lead to an aircraft being just a couple hundred feet above the ground at quite a distance from the airport. That is quite different to an aircraft being below the glide slope on an approach near an airport with more level terrain. Specific the Canarsie approach is not a sharp turn, but rather one that only requires 15 degrees of bank if executed properly, and at the end of the turn the aircraft is typically only around 400ft AGL. So what we’re talking about here, in the correct context, is a pilot hand flying the aircraft and not properly observing his descent rate during the turn and electing to go-around. Important also to note that the Canarsie approach has specific weather minima meaning the ground and airfield would’ve been clearly in sight (I believe the minima are 3 statue miles of visibility and airfield in sight at 800ft which is where the then begins over the Parkway, but I’m not totally sure).

    Specifically connecting this issue to a much, much more severe one that occured in DME and resulted from entirely different circumstances (Russia using metric, presumably human error in reading conversion tables, ignoring the GPWS), is reckless sensationalism.

  10. Lucky, I think this informative and useful thanks.

    @Mike, Lucky specifically states that this was not as severe as the DME incident. Whether or not further analysis of the data and investigation backs this up it does seem Emirates has had a surprising number of approach-related incidents (incl one accident) in the recent past.

    The fact this was reported by the Aviation Herald implies that this incident was reported to the FAA and “raised eyebrows” enough for a detailed account to be taken, so while we should certainky not be jumping to conclusions I don’t think reporting this and mentioning other recent EK incidents is “sensationalism”.

  11. AGL = Above Ground Level
    MSL = (Above) Mean Sea Level

    At JFK, they are virtually the same, as the airport is only at 12′ elevation.

    Either way, the EK was too low and made the right call to go around, but certainly at a safe altitude to go around.

  12. This is what happens when captains of heavy aircraft have less experience than the copilots on Scranton to Philly hops. No more ME3 for me.

  13. Golly, just think if the plane had hit something. That could have interfered with Zach Honig’s slobbering review of Emirates’ First-Class suite and his self-serving Go-Pro filming.

  14. @docntx As an ATC in North Texas, I can tell you that communicating with a foreign flight crew is something we all stay on our toes with, since the potential for a miscommunication due to a language barrier is much greater. The goal with a foreign airline is to keep the instructions as simple as possible, less chance of an error.

  15. While that JFK example was a bit extreme, the reality is that North American, particularly US, phraseology and practice varies sightly from the ICAO standards. This is for good reasons, which have to do with the amount of GA and traffic overall, but the familiarity can be a bit of a departure for foreign airlines, particularly ones where the level of English proficiency isn’t great. This wouldn’t have been an issue with the Emirates crew, as fluent English proficiency, as opposed to simply Aviation English proficiency, is a major qualification. Add to that the complexity of the JFK ground handling at busy times and the general controller culture there and it results in some of these oddball situations.

  16. The flight crew was trying to do a short final to runway 13L and they certainly lost it (i.e., did not understand their position with regard to the runway and the ground). They went around and landed on 22L after doing a long final.

    They were low just before they started their right turn on short final. That turn cost then even more altitude. Why such a big aircraft would be doing a short final at 8:30PM after a 13 hours flight would be an interesting question. Somebody must have thought that there was more talent on the flight deck and there actually was.

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