2018 was a year of mixed fortunes for the aviation industry. While a number of excellent new routes were launched using some of the most advanced and comfortable aircraft in existence, a number of high-profile accidents and incidents continue to dominate news headlines. A trend, it seems, that is set to continue into 2019, after an Ethiopian Airlines flight skidded off the runway after landing at Entebbe’s International Airport on January 3rd. The flight, designated ET338, departed Addis Ababa just 19 minutes behind schedule at shortly after 11 pm before enjoying an uneventful cruise to Uganda’s main international airport, where it touched down ahead of schedule, at 00.43.
Unfortunately, once the flight touched down on Entebbe’s Runway 17, the aircraft, which was carrying 139 passengers and crew at the time, failed to come to a timely halt and overran the runway by over 125 meters. The aircraft, a Boeing 737-800 series carrying tail number ET-AOA, first entered service in October 2010 and had not, up until now, been involved in a serious incident. In this case, the aircraft came to a stop in the soft ground at the end of Runway 17, where all passengers and crew were able to disembark using stairs before being escorted to the terminal building. Fortunately, no injuries were reported and, in a statement later released by Ethiopian Airlines, there was ‘no damage to the aircraft’, and it was later ‘towed to the ramp’.
While it is a testimony to the skill of the pilots and crew in handling the emergency, as well as the tried-and-tested safety systems on board the 8-year-old Boeing aircraft, this latest incident will no doubt raise serious questions about the African carrier’s safety record. Although on this occasion, there was no serious harm done, the outcome could easily have been much worse. Entebbe airport’s Runway 17 is a full 12,000 feet (3,658m) in length, with the southern end protruding approximately 400m into Lake Victoria. Given that this particular flight was landing in towards the south, the aircraft came painfully close to skidding into the water which would have undoubtedly resulted in mass casualties, not to mention a likely hull loss for the airline.
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Examining the details of the incident further only raises more questions about how this occurred and demonstrates just how close flight ET338 came to disaster. A Boeing 737-800 aircraft, even at its maximum landing weight of around 146,000lbs, requires just over 6,700 feet of runway to land safely in wet conditions, based on Entebbe’s runway elevation of 1,150m. This figure is reduced to approximately 5,800 feet in dry conditions, such as those present when flight ET338 overran the runway. Given that the flight had the full 12,000 feet of Runway 17 available when it made its approach, it should have been able to land safely with 6,200 feet to spare. Undoubtedly, a thorough investigation will now have to be conducted to establish whether the accident was a result of pilot error, or a mechanical or systems failure on board the Boeing aircraft.