Honestly, given the airline’s excellent reputation, this is not what one would expect to happen to an Ethiopian Airlines plane… and yet, on Sunday, 04APR21, flight ET 3891, operating as a cargo flight, managed to land at a Zambian airport still under construction, some 15 km away from the correct destination.
The Ethiopian Airlines cargo flight, registration ET-AYL, had taken off from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and was scheduled to land in Ndola, Zambia, at Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe Airport. It did land safely in Ndola, however on the 3,500-meter landing strip of Zambia's new Copperbelt International Airport – a US $397 million Chinese investment that has been undergoing construction over the past few years and was due to open in 2020 before the pandemic delayed plans. Still incomplete, it has not yet been officially inaugurated and is thus not in operation.
“We can’t see you!”
The words “We can't see you” from the air traffic control tower should have alerted the pilot to the error in his routing as he radioed in to land, and yet he continued his approach. “He used his sight as he had no control and landed at an airport still under construction,” the Zambian permanent secretary of the Ministry of Transport, Misheck Lungu told Agence France-Press, and stated that the pilot had landed at the unopened airport “by error”.
Upon landing, the plane began to taxi across the apron, but was alerted to its error by airport construction workers signaling to the crew. Thus, it aborted parking, returning instead to the runway and taking off again, this time towards its correct destination. No damage had been incurred by the incorrect landing as luckily the airport is 88% complete, which includes the finished landing strip.
Weather was not to blame, as the skies were mostly clear that day. An experienced pilot speculated to CFG: “Rookie mistake. Shouldn’t have happened. His aircraft has so many pieces of kit that that would have said ‘errr, you might want to check this!’" and went on to explain: “Just to clarify, many airports in Africa do not have electronic instrument landing systems so he was making a visual approach, but his GPS would have told him he'd done a boo boo. We are trained for this.”
However, not the only one?
Yet, according to The Aviation Herold, just 2.5 hours later, another Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa – this time a B738 operating as flight ET-871, registration ET-AQP – also approached the new airport but turned around from 50 feet AGL. “Construction workers at the aerodrome gesticulated while the aircraft was on final approach, the crew performed a go around from about the threshold of the new runway at about 50 feet AGL and subsequently positioned to the correct airport for a safe landing,” the article reads. One of the article’s commentators identifying as Apt Skip Scott, reasoned: “Two flights from the same airline in a day hints at a database update for the FMS and/or dispatch software. If the ‘new’ airport was added before actually becoming operationally ready, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. If both fields have different identifiers (as they should...) and both were dispatched by the same dispatcher, it’s also possible that the dispatcher used the wrong one. It’s also possible the dispatcher was not a ‘regular’ in that dispatch region for the airline. In any case, airlines & software providers should be rigorously ensuring only valid choices are presented to users.”
What’s in a name?
So, it could be a software problem? It could also be a simple error given the naming confusion that has ensued and no clear three-letter-code information yet available for the new, incomplete airport. Only ‘NLA’ currently exists, which refers to the existing airport in operation.
Back on 05OCT20, Zambia Airports Cooperation tweeted images of the almost complete new airport in Ndola, stating that it would assume the name of the current airport in operation: "The Copperbelt International Airport renamed Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport, is on its way to being a hub for air traffic with a class E runway that will be able to accommodate large aircraft such as Boeing 747/777, Airbus 350 and MD 11." The current, ‘old’ Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport still in operation only received its own new name ten years ago when, in 2011, it was renamed in honor of Zambia’s former Vice President. Until that point, it had been known as Ndola Airport since its construction as a British Royal Air Force military base in 1938. Once the new airport goes into operation, the old one will return to its old name of Ndola International Airport but will no longer be used for commercial flights.
Or perhaps, being cargo flights, it was the lure of the new air cargo transit terminal that forms part of new The Copperbelt International Airport that drew the cargo flights in like flies to a spider’s web? This is an additional facility that the current Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport does not possess on a large scale. Zambia is Africa's second-largest copper producer, and the new airport is designed to be able to handle an impressive million tons of freight per annum. It is well connected to road transport to the region’s own mining areas, as well being just a 20-minute flight away from Lubumbashi in Congo’s Katanga Province, another major mining region that relies on cargo logistics.
Statement and investigation
Ethiopian Airlines issued a statement the next day: “Although details of the incident are under investigation in coordination with the Zambian Aeronautical Authorities, the fact that there was no NOTAM (notice to airmen) issued regarding the construction of the new airport which has the same runway heading orientation with the existing one and the close proximity between the two airports may have contributed to the incident. As always Ethiopian Airlines takes flight safety very seriously and treats it as the topmost priority and accordingly it will take all necessary corrective and preventive measures in line with the findings of the investigation.”
When will the new airport open?
Originally, the new airport was scheduled to be opened in MAR20. Then Covid-19 came and the date was postponed to OCT20. However, given the ongoing pandemic, construction completion of the last 12% will take place this year. The new opening date has not yet been announced. The question is how quickly it will receive its own three-letter code to avoid this kind of confusion in future? Since it is quite possible that the reverse error could happen, too.
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