“Safest Airline’s” 100 mph Overrun (Bangkok, 1999)

Australia’s Qantas airline mostly flies long-haul routes to the world’s major airports, where there is relatively little risk. With good pilots and an absence of bad luck, it could boast of never having suffered a hull loss (in the jet age). The airline came close to blotting its copybook in stormy weather in Bangkok, and indeed only avoided doing so by carrying out the most expensive repairs ever made to a civilian aircraft.

Qantas Flight 001, September 23, 1999

Looking out from the twenty-eighth-floor balcony of a tower apartment on the bank of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, the author watched torrential rain of an intensity he had never witnessed. He wondered how pilots of incoming aircraft could cope with it. As if in answer to that question, the next day’s Bangkok Post had a few lines saying a Qantas 747 had been involved in some trouble at the airport, with no injuries. The incident was termed a mere mishap. However, when more details became available, perhaps through disaffected Qantas staff, the “mishap” became headline news in Thailand.

Apparently, the jumbo was still traveling at 100 miles an hour (160 kilometers an hour) when it ran onto the grass at the end of the paved runway overrun area after coming in to land. The Bangkok Post was later to comment, “It was a miracle a fire leading to many deaths had not occurred,” adding that the landing had also been a “fiasco” in that, as explained later, some systems on the aircraft “assumed” it was about to take off, which for a moment it was.

The Thai authorities were miffed to discover Qantas staff had removed the quick access data recorder but finally asked the then highly respected Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) to investigate the incident. After all, in the absence of significant injuries, and with damage limited to Australian property, the Thais preferred to take a backseat.
This was a fortunate decision, as the final 186-page ATSB report into the incident is an exceptionally complete and lucid document by any standards. For the technically minded, it is like a detective story in that there is enough basic information for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions regarding what might or might not have happened had this or that parameter been different.