The trouble started almost immediately. A few minutes after taking off from Lisbon on Sunday, the pilots of an Air Astana Embraer 190 jet called Mayday. “We have flight control problems,” he told air traffic control, asking for a path to the sea for an emergency landing.
“We have six people on board,” one pilot said a few minutes later, according to an audio
Those six included three pilots and three engineers, , who were taking the aircraft from Portugal, where it had been undergoing maintenance, to Kazakhstan, where Air Astana is based. In the first portion of the flight, the Embraer traced the sort of flight path you’d draw if you took your [Spirograph](on a roller coaster. Eventually, the pilots regained control and, escorted by a pair of fighter jets, flew south to an airport with good weather and landed safely.
“Due to technical reasons the crew decided to perform an unplanned landing,” Air Astana said in a statement on Twitter. The investigation into what happened is just beginning, but the loss of control points to a few possibilities, says Shawn Pruchnicki, a former airline pilot who teaches aviation safety, human factors, accident investigation, and complex aircraft operation at Ohio State University’s Center for Aviation Studies. The plane’s control surfaces (the flaps, ailerons, and so on) could have frozen, or the power control units that move them might have failed. It might be related to the plane’s recent maintenance, or the timing could be coincidental.
Pilots are trained to follow a simple creed when something goes wrong: Aviate, navigate, and communicate, in that order. In a loss-of-control situation, Pruchnicki says, aviating means figuring out what systems are working and how you can use them to stay level.
“Try to maintain control of the aircraft at all times, using whatever means you have to,” Pruchnicki says. “There are some aerodynamic techniques that can be used for an airplane that is seemingly out of control that really sharp pilots, especially those with acrobatic training, can attempt to regain control.”
Imagine you’re stuck banking steeply to the right and losing altitude, and the ailerons (those flappy bits on the wings) are frozen. In normal flight, the pilot uses the rudder to point the nose right or left. Here, with the plane at an angle, the pilot could step on the left pedal to move the rudder, pulling the nose up and maintaining altitude. “The airplane will still stay 90 degrees”—tilted to the right, that is—”but it’ll be controllable in a different axis.”
Or say you’re having trouble turning: Changing how much power goes to each engine might help. The Brazilian-made Embraer 190’s engines sit under its wings, so applying thrust can pitch the plane up a bit. The point is, pilots have lots of tools at their disposal. When one tool malfunctions, pilots have to get creative with how they use the others.
The Air Astana pilot’s request for directions to the ocean—“We need vectoring to the sea please, we will be ditching”—indicate that at that moment, he didn’t think he could reach an airport or even a large field. The ocean’s swells can make things tricky, but “it might be the best choice, out of some really crappy choices.” At least you won’t hit any buildings, and you don’t have to worry about lining up with a runway.
An hour after calling Mayday, the pilot announced he had control of the plane and could maintain a set heading and altitude. By this point, they were accompanied by a pair of F-16 fighter jets scrambled by the Portuguese air force, which led the Embraer south toward the airport in Beja.
Even when your navigation systems are working, that kind of guidance is helpful because it gives you one less thing to worry about. “All of this takes a lot of mental bandwidth, and it’s nice to have a jet that you can just fly next to,” Pruchnicki says. “That way the burden is shifted onto them. It’s good crew resource management.” Remember that aviating—maintaining control of the plane—comes before navigating. (The fighter pilots can also take a look at the parts of the plane you can’t see and maybe figure out what’s wrong.)
Once at Beja, the Embraer’s crew needed three approaches to get onto the ground, but safely touched down at around 3:30 in the afternoon.