Atlas Air had similar emergencies to case that shut Hong Kong runway; city in touch with US

Hong Kong aviation authorities have followed up with their American counterparts as reports emerged the US-based airline involved in an emergency landing that caused an eight-hour runway closure also suffered two similar incidents with the same model of plane this month.

The city’s Civil Aviation Department said it had been in touch with the United States Federal Aviation Administration after a 747-400 freighter operated by Atlas Air burst two of its tyres on the north runway. The plane was left stranded, forcing delays to 450 flights.

Atlas Air also reportedly suffered two similar incidents this month with the same model of Boeing aircraft. Another of the airline’s 747-400 cargo jets was forced to return to Incheon International Airport in South Korea due to a hydraulic failure on Tuesday last week. Three tyres sustained damage, according to media reports.

Industry publication Aviation Herald reported that the same aircraft had landed at Los Angeles International Airport with damaged tyres nine days earlier.

In a reply to the Post on Friday over the string of incidents, the department said it “has requested the concerned airline to provide a comprehensive response and has followed up with the Federal Aviation Administration”.

It added: “The maintenance checks of an aircraft are established based on the recommendations of the aircraft manufacturer.”

Operators were responsible for maintaining aircraft in accordance with the requirements of the manufacturer and the jurisdiction in which the plane was registered, the department said.

“The Civil Aviation Department continues to conduct safety oversight of foreign-registered aircraft through the safety assessment of foreign aircraft programme using a risk-based approach,” it said.

According to the Airport Authority, the city handles about 60 take-offs and landings every day involving 747-400 planes, all of which are cargo jets.

Warren Chim Wing-nin, deputy chairman of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers’ aircraft division, said the recent incidents in the city and South Korea might not necessarily be linked just because they involved the same model of aircraft.

“We won’t know until we have the investigation report of the Hong Kong incident,” Chim said.

He added that a similar review of the one in South Korea would also be needed before any comparisons could be drawn.

There was “no need” to conduct extra checks on Atlas Air or 747-400s unless instructed by Boeing – the designer and manufacturer of the aircraft – or the relevant aviation authorities based on the investigation outcomes, he said.

Chim suggested a possible scenario in which overheated tyres had burst due to a safety fuse not releasing pressure in time to avoid an explosive deflation. External pressure could have also contributed to the tyres bursting.

Fragments of a burst tyre could crack the pipes of the hydraulic system, causing an oil leak which would in turn cause it to fail.

The cargo returned to Hong Kong about two hours after departure when the crew noticed a hydraulic system failure.

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About 450 of the 932 flights operating between 7am and midnight on the day of the incident were delayed. Photo: Jelly Tse

The plane, which was bound for Chicago with a stop scheduled in Anchorage, Alaska, burst the tyres when touching down on the north runway. The aircraft was left disabled, and none of the five crew members were injured.

But the runway was forced to close for more than eight hours and did not resume operation until 3.45pm, after the aircraft had been towed away. About 450 of the 932 flights operating between 7am and midnight were delayed.

The authority said the plane was stuck on the runway because of the damage it sustained.

Airport staff also had to conduct emergency repairs on multiple airfield ground light fittings and areas of the runway surface, according to the authority.

The rescue process involved lifting the jet, which weighed up to 300 tonnes, to have its tyres changed.

A significant hydraulic leakage from the aircraft body and extensive damage to the tyres and wheel rims complicated the lifting process, according to the authority, which said it would review the handling process and strive to be quicker in future.

But it stressed that the time spent moving disabled aircraft varied depending on the circumstances.

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