Pre-flight checklist was rushed to expedite a late departure

Pilot error could have endangered US-bound El Al flight with 300 on board

In March incident probed by ministry, autopilot compensated for pilot’s incorrect weight calculations, enabling flight to Newark to take off safely despite deficient checks

File: One of El Al's new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft arrives at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, August 23, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
File: One of El Al's new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft arrives at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, August 23, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

An El Al flight in March from Israel to the United States could have been put in danger due to a pilot’s error in calculating the plane’s weight, according to a report published Monday by the Transportation Ministry’s top safety investigator.

The report concerned El Al flight 027 from Tel Aviv to Newark, whose harried staff was trying to rush through the pre-flight checklist to expedite an already late departure.

The rush, ministry investigator Yitzhak Raz concluded in the report, led the pilot of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner plane to drop some 40 tons from the plane’s estimated weight when he input that weight into the flight computer.

The incorrect weight measurement caused ground crews to put too little fuel in the plane, and could have caused the plane’s automated take-off calculations to go awry, potentially causing the tail to scrape the ground on lift-off, or a loss of control once the plane was airborne.

According to both the Transportation Ministry and El Al, passengers were never in danger because automated safety systems on the plane kicked in to compensate for the erroneous figure typed in by the pilot.

El Al airplanes on the tarmac at the Ben Gurion International Airport on August 14, 2012. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

But the ministry report nevertheless characterized the mistake as a “serious incident,” and noted that safety checks that could have caught the error were either not performed or rushed through because the plane had arrived late from Hong Kong, and was therefore departing as much as an hour late to the US.

Once the pilot input the incorrect weight of 128.6 tons for the plane without fuel, exactly 40 tons short of the correct figure of 168.6 tons, he noticed the mistake and immediately attempted to correct it. According to the report, the pilot believed the correction had been made successfully, but it was not registered by the computer.

After ground crews then loaded too little fuel into the plane — enough to get it to Newark, but not as much as safety margins require — the fueling report was then sent to the cabin crew for approval. The report, part of the system of safety cross-checks required before each flight, appears to have been ignored amid the rush to leave, the ministry report said.

As the plane took off with its weight calculations dangerously off, the  autopilot compensated for the incorrect data and carried the plane and its 300 passengers safely into the air.

The ministry report blamed a lack of coordination and an absence of required safety cross-checks for the incident.

An El Al spokesperson said in a statement to the press Monday that the company “takes flight safety issues seriously. As the [ministry] report says, the flight captain noticed the error immediately and drew the correct conclusions. The incident was reported immediately by El Al to the Civil Aviation Authority and the chief investigator of the Transportation Ministry. It is important to note that at no point were the passengers or the plane in danger. El Al carried out a comprehensive investigation of the incident and has refreshed its procedures and training for all the company’s pilots.”

The company said it “views flight safety as our paramount value.”

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