How An A300 Made An Injury-Free Landing After Being Hit By A Missile

Tomorrow will mark 18 years since the miraculous landing of a DHL Airbus A300 Freighter in Baghdad, Iraq. The aircraft was the target of a surface-to-air missile attack, which struck its left wing while departing the Iraqi capital. Despite a total loss of hydraulics, the plane’s crew managed to return to the airport and land without any injuries to the three of them.

DHL Airbus A300
The aircraft involved, as seen in June 2003. Photo: US Department of Defense via Wikimedia Commons

The flight in question

On November 22nd, 2003, a DHL Airbus A300 operated by European Air Transport Leipzig departed Baghdad International Airport (BGW) at 09:30 local time. Under US occupation, this facility had been renamed in April 2003. Previously, it was known as Saddam International Airport (SDA), after former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Its destination was Bahrain International Airport (BAH), which remains a hub for DHL International Aviation Middle East to this day. According to data from GCMap.com, the distance between Baghdad and Bahrain is 616 miles (991 km / 535 NM).

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The aircraft involved

The aircraft that operated the flight in question was an Airbus A300B4-200 freighter. Registered as OO-DLL, data from ATDB.aero shows that it was 24 years old at the time of the attack. It entered commercial service with Malaysia Airlines as 9M-MHB in December 1979.

Malaysia Airlines Airbus A300
The aircraft during its time at Malaysia Airlines. Photo: Perry Hoppe via Wikimedia Commons

It spent the majority of its career with this carrier, eventually leaving after 15 years in November 1994. After this, it transferred to Carnival Airlines as N225KW, before moving on to PACE Cargo Enterprises by the end of the decade. However, it was only under PACE’s ownership for 18 days. Its conversion to a cargo-carrying aircraft took place in March 1999

The aircraft then joined European Air Transport Leipzig in September 2000, after which it was re-registered as OO-DLL. For just over three years, it operated services on behalf of the wider DHL group, wearing a predominantly white livery with dark red detailing.

On November 22nd, 2003, it had two Belgian pilots and a Scottish flight engineer onboard. The latter of these 13,400 hours of flight experience. Meanwhile, the captain had logged 3,300 flight hours (of which over half were in the A300), with the First Officer having 1,275.

DHL Airbus A300 Getty
DHL’s A300s haven’t always worn the yellow livery that we know so well today. Photo: Getty Images

Attacked after takeoff

Owing to the hostile situation that prevailed in Iraq in the early 2000s, the crew opted to climb rapidly upon departure from Baghdad. The idea of this was to minimize the risk of the aircraft being attacked from the ground. Nonetheless, a group of militants from the paramilitary pro-Hussein Fedayeen Saddam group fire a surface-to-air missile at the plane.

The climbing A300 had reached an altitude of 8,000 feet when the 9K34 Strela-3 missile struck the aircraft’s left wing. The warhead impacted the jet between its engine and left wingtip, prompting a fire to break out. The strike also damaged trailing-edge surfaces and, crucially, led to a complete loss of hydraulic pressure in the A300’s flight control system.

Baghdad Bahrain Map
The A300 was meant to fly southeast to Bahrain (5hr 10 min refers to the indirect route that present-day passengers have to take). Image: Google Maps

Flying without hydraulics

The lack of hydraulics made the aircraft difficult to control, and its pitch rapidly swung back and forth between nose-up and nose-down. With no flight control surfaces at their disposal, the crew had to use the A300’s engines to direct the aircraft instead. With the aircraft needing to land urgently, the deployment of the landing gear helped to reduce its speed.

The crew spent around 10 minutes getting to grips with their new way of controlling the aircraft using nothing but engine power. This placed them in a similar situation to United flight 232 in 1989, which Simple Flying looked at in greater detail in July this year. Despite the hostile situation, returning to nearby Baghdad offered the best chance of a safe landing.

United Airlines DC-10
A United DC-10 had to use thrust to direct the aircraft in 1989. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

A carefully managed approach

Having brought the stricken aircraft under a degree of control, the crew made a right turn towards Baghdad International Airport, and began their descent. The approach had to be managed very carefully, as the plane was also leaking fuel from its damaged left wing.

This meant that a loss of engine power from the port engine could also have been a threat. After all, the rudimentary manner of controlling the aircraft’s direction using thrust relied upon being able to precisely control each of the plane’s two turbofans. Had fuel flow to the left engine been lost, fuel would have to have been fed in from a right-hand tank.

The crew initially planned to land on Baghdad’s runway 33R, which is 4,000 meters long. However, while descending towards the airport, the wayward A300 began to veer off course, rendering the shorter runway 33L to be the best option under the circumstances.

EAT Leipzig A300
EAT Leipzig still flies A300s for DHL today, with 28 in its fleet. Photo: Oliver Holzbauer via Flickr

The emergency landing

According to the Aviation Safety Network, the A300’s first landing attempt resulted in a missed approach. However, the aircraft eventually managed to touch down at the second time of asking 16 minutes later, on the 3,301-meter-long runway 33L. Just before touchdown, the plane encountered turbulence and rolled slightly, requiring a thrust correction.

Having brought the roll under control, the A300 finally touched down off-center, and immediately deployed its reverse thrusters. It was unable to retain a straight course on the runway, and veered off into the adjacent sand. The stricken aircraft eventually came to a stop after several hundred meters, having collected a razor-wire barrier along the way.

Baghdad International Airport
A variety of airlines serve Baghdad International today. Photo: Jim Gordon via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the imminent danger posed by the initial missile strike, all three crew members survived the attack without injuries. This was the first instance of an airliner being landed without hydraulics with no loss of life. As such, the crew members were jointly awarded a host of accolades in the aftermath, in honor of their professionalism.

As for the aircraft, attempts were made to repair it following the crash, and it even went on sale in 2005 under the registration N1452. However, no buyer could be found, for the aircraft, which subsequently never flew again. After sitting for years in the sandy Iraqi desert quite literally gathering dust, Planespotters.net reports that it has since been scrapped.

Can you remember this incident from 2003? Are you aware of any others like it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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