Mayday: three jumbo jets in UK skies alerted controllers over low fuel, CAA files show
By Keith Perry, Roger Wilsher and Alison Winward | 18 August 2011
“To see so many fire engines on landing made me realise that it could have been bad” – Passenger on Virgin flight number VS16
Two Virgin Atlantic passenger jets were forced to issue emergency alerts this year on the same day because they were running out of fuel.
Air-traffic controllers had to handle four low-fuel emergencies – one of them a ‘mayday’ – at Stansted airport on the same day.
Two of the emergencies were Virgin Atlantic jumbo 747s – each with capacity for 451 passengers. They needed priority landing after running low on fuel while flying to the UK from America, an Exaro investigation has uncovered.
A Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman confirmed that the crew of the two planes – one named ‘Jersey Girl’, the other ‘Hot Lips’ – had to alert controllers as the aircraft ran low on fuel, but denied that either issued maydays. The planes had been diverted to Stansted from Gatwick because of severe winds.
A passenger on ‘Jersey Girl’, flight number VS16, said afterwards: “To see so many fire engines on landing made me realise that it could have been bad.”
On the same day, an Embraer 190, a twin-engine aircraft for up to 114 passengers, was diverted to Southampton and put out a mayday after it ran low on fuel.
It comes as Spanish authorities launched an investigation into Ryanair over three low-fuel maydays in Spain.
A Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman said: “Due to severe and abnormal weather conditions, two flights in January 2012 were diverted to Stansted. Following standard procedures, a pan alert was issued to air-traffic control to give a priority landing. Our fuel-management procedures are approved by the Civil Aviation Authority and comply with all industry regulations.”
And, in a separate incident in May, Exaro has established that a Boeing 747 from an unidentified UK airline was in a holding pattern for 20 minutes while waiting to land at Heathrow airport when the captain declared a mayday because of low fuel and demanded immediate clearance to land.
It was the third mayday called by UK airliners because of low fuel this year, according to records obtained by Exaro from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
The aviation regulator did not name the airlines, to encourage them to make voluntary reports. Exaro today publishes an edited version of the CAA filings.
There were at least 28 cases of commercial passenger aircraft of UK airlines that declared low-fuel emergencies in the past two years while flying to airports in the United Kingdom, according to data compiled by the CAA’s ‘safety regulation group’.
The planes also included Boeing 737s, 757s, 767s, 777s, as well as Airbus aircraft. Among their destinations were Birmingham, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham.
The emergencies are bound to add to concerns in particular over expanding airports in south-east England. They will also underline worries about commercial pressures on pilots to minimise how much fuel they load.
A CAA spokesman explained that every commercial passenger aircraft is legally required to carry enough fuel to reach its destination and perform a ‘go-around’, in which the flight crew aborts a landing and flies round the airport to make another attempt, as well as divert to a designated alternate airport and still be able to stay in a holding pattern for 30 minutes.
If an aircraft is running low on fuel, he said, the captain should call a ‘pan’ emergency, signalling that assistance may be needed. The captain should declare a ‘mayday’, a request for immediate assistance, in a life-threatening emergency.
The CAA neither records details of aircraft of foreign airlines declaring emergencies in the UK, nor of UK planes in such situations abroad.
The most recent incident was at Heathrow on May 30 when the airport was submerged in smog. The CAA filing said, with emphasis as shown: “B747 held in the hold for 20mins on arrival and given an extended approach, was instructed to go-around. PAN declared due to fuel state, which was upgraded to a MAYDAY.”
The aircraft had used a fifth of its reserve fuel. Airliners are supposed to land without using any reserve fuel. The filing said: “Fuel on shutdown 3,400kg. Reserve 4,280kg.” The 747 had undertaken a ‘go-around’ because of a false report of an obstacle on the runway.