Sounds Like A Terrifying Flight

I wonder what the story behind the story is on this one - sounds like not even a basic pre-flight was followed?

Children of magenta.


A bit more detail in this one. All four pilots have been fired, according to the report.

I would have assumed that setting the climb altitude would be a checklist item? Sort of like calculating your V speeds I’d assume.

It might not be on every operator’s checklist (for instance, it’s explicitly not on ours which is based on the manufacturer’s checklist for the airframe we fly), but it’s absolutely part of everyone’s SOPs.

Our checklist just spells out “Crew Briefing”, the last item on the Before Takeoff checklist before “line-up items” like strobes and hot items, but our SOP expands that into what items need to be covered and set, and altitude selector on the MCP is definitely one of the important ones.

That said, if after takeoff the command bars/flight director aren’t giving me a climb, I’m going to ignore them and set a climb pitch attitude. This problem happened long before takeoff, and is a lot deeper than failing to set an altitude in the MCP…


Is the flight clearance pre-cleared on these sorts of flights (via ATSU or whatever the Boeing calls it), so the initial altitude is in the FMS already?

In the simple world of sims I’m so used to calling ATC and getting a clearance (CRAFT etc) that always includes what I would check is on the MCP alt - in fact I put the MCP altitude to 9995 when at cold start, just to show me that I haven’t got cleared yet.

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I assume they were using PDC/CPDLC, but really have no idea how they received the clearance for that flight. Either way, while some fancy cockpits can automatically input the clearance into the FMC/FMS, nothing can change the altitude selector on the MCP automagically (to my knowledge), the initial altitude (or top altitude of the SID) has to be manually selected (which is a good thing! Let’s keep it that way, lol). Maybe one of the heavy-metal drivers can give their input and correct me if I’m wrong about that on Boeing/Airbus equipment.

You’re doing it right; we just leave it at 0 until we have something to put in, then verify both after receiving the clearance, and during the takeoff briefing that what we see is what we got.

I do one more check that is probably not much more useful than crossing my fingers, but I always read back “XXXX, up to 5000’, cleared for takeoff runway XX”, whether the tower controller gave me the altitude right then or not. My hope is that if we’ve somehow misunderstood/selected the wrong altitude, the tower will catch it right then as we’re taking the runway and prevent me having the file a NASA report for an altitude bust. I don’t know if it helps because I’ve never had that happen (could tomorrow), but I figure it can’t hurt.

I’ve never flown anything as advanced as the 777, so I know very little about its systems and the SOP they use.

From reading about this incident I am left with the impression that unless an altitude higher than zero is set, the aircraft won’t climb on the departure…?

Please say it ain’t so.

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The aircraft should do whatever the PF is telling it to do with his control inputs, up until the AP is engaged. The issue here appears to be a loose nut behind the yoke blindly following the FD, I think.

I speculate, based on the two or three articles I’ve read (written by other people, who are also speculating), that something like the following happened:

MCP set to 0’,
+TO/GA pressed prior to T/O,
+Current altitude within 200’ of selected, FD mode automatically switches to ALT CAPture,
=FD gives a neutral or negative pitch value on the PFD.

Maybe this creates a moment (or two) of confusion, which is why the aircraft stayed on the runway for so long prior to rotation, which the PF then accomplishes without reference to the suicidal FD.

After takeoff, the autopilot is engaged at approximately 200’ (which seems low to me, but I like to hand-fly to at least 1000’, airlines do it differently and that’s okay). We don’t know if they got their FD mode fixed or not, but I doubt it because of what happened next.

If the current altitude is still within 200’ of the selected altitude on the MCP, the FD would probably re-enter (or have remained in) an altitude capture mode. In their case, climbing, I would expect the AP to gradually level the aircraft, then enter a steady but gentle descent to capture at a couple hundred FPM. Which appears to be what it did, with the flight crew watching a wondering “What’s it doing now?” until it got as low as 175’ MSL at 260+ knots. :scream:


If the 777 is any similar to our 737 its a limitation to not engage the autopilot prior 400 AGL on takeoff. FCOM chapter Limitations.

Not setting the MCP is, imo, a sign of bad prep from the crew and whats more astonishing is that it wasn’t catched by any during the whole pre departure process.
Even if it isnt a item on the checkist, which I doubt: our before start checklist has an ‘MCP’ item which forces us to check the altitude window and I assume Boeing sports some commonality between types; it still is a vital element in setting up the autopilot system and should be covered in the PF’s departure briefing.

I , for example, always set the altitude limit of the SID plus or minus 100 feet in the window until we have confirmed the clearance and reset it to the proper alt.
There is no one single correct way. The point is that many pilots have their own mannerisms to do things according to operating procedures while implementing little tricks to enable being challenged or corrected. This constitutes good CRM and aids flightsafety.

Another thing that strikes me as odd in the article is that it claims the Flight Director system would point the aircraft toward the 0 altitude.
This would only happen if they ALSO did not engage the TO/GA button on takeoff roll to engage the autothrottle. That would be odd.
So a lot of questionmarks here.

While I am always quite sceptical about the stuff journalists write about aviation incidents (and these linked pages also have a lot of speculation which I dislike very much) its quite clear that in this case there are some objectively incapable people involved.

“Flying Upside Down” anyone?


Now That’s some really terrifying reading. I’d forgotten about that one, what a mess! And it’s nearly ten years old now, what are things like now? :open_mouth:

Yeah, but if not setting the correct altitude causes all these problems, shouldn’t it be incorporated in a takeoff config warning, or something?
And while I can, to some degree, see why the flying pilot followed the flight director, who was monitoring the flightpath?
As you say, a lot of speculation in those articles… We definitely don’t have the entire picture here.

What was that?

I haven’t flown in such an environment myself, but stories from our instructors from recent missions are still the same as they’ve always been.

In certain countries culture remains such that flight safety is far less important than hierarchy, status, cash and all other detrimental factors.

There are still operators flying into your and my homebase who have absolutely no business coming into our airspace from a safety point of view.


The takeoff config warning warns for unsafe aircraft conditions. Not brainless pilot conditions.

Flying Upside Down is a book and essential reading imo!

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Yes, but if forgetting to set the altitude is just as dangerous as forgetting to set flaps…well… See my point? It just don’t make sense. Why would the rotation have been delayed because of wrong altitude setting?

Never heard of it.
This one?
A brief synopsis, please?

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Well, that’s the thing. Not setting an altitude in the MCP by itself is not necessarily a dangerous thing. You’re connecting dots that are very specific for this case where

  1. we don’t have all the info
  2. the issue is not directly related to not setting the MCP rather than a failure of many other things (the ‘holes in the swiss cheese lining up’ - kinda way

if you press down your accelerator pedal to the floor while parked at a busy lot after having put your gear in drive, you will wreak havoc. Yet your car doesn’t prevent you from doing it.
If you close a scissors while your finger is between the blades… and so on.

An aircraft is a complex machine and there are infinite ways you can make it into a hazardous machine. That’s why crew needs to be trained and operating instructions need to be followed.

Back to your question; not setting the flaps is more dangerous because it hampers the aircraft to properly fly (in time).
Not setting the altitude window doesn’t disallow manual flight. The aircraft is perfectly able to fly and perfectly controllable. And every pilot should have the reflex to start manually flying the aircraft if it doesn’t do the things you expect it to do. Fly the aircraft, assure safe parameters and then analyse what’s wrong and follow up. Again, training and competence.

Besides, I still have the impression the whole ‘MCP altitude window not set’ probably isn’t the root cause of the incident here at all.

Assuming the did press TO/GA on takeoff to engage the autothrottle, this will also place the flight director into TO/GA mode, causing a safe pitch up guidance.
So, for the PF to have blindly steered after the FD after takeoff, like the article suggests, there has to be other stuff taken place that’s out of the realm of normal procedures.
Furthermore, I don’t think turning the AP on after takeoff with the MCP altitude window set to 0 feet will make it pitch down at all. (but I might be incorrect). If it actually was the pilot flying just blindly following the flight director with total disregard to other indications then we come back to me statement above; training and competence.

Before ending up in endless speculation we should wait on reliable info.

On to the book, yep that’s the one.
Its a ‘witness report’ if you will, from a pilot who has flown in China and chronicled his adventures. He touched upon culture differences, company policy, training, inter personal customs, influence of politics, etc.
Its annecdotal and so some things probably should be taken with a grain of salt (which he puts into a disclaimer at the front of the book as well) and he uses a lot of strong language in the book, which might turn some people off, but all in all its a very interesting read if you can stand the style its written in.
Even if only half of it is true, I run long enough in the world of aviation that I can assure you the general gist of it, certainly is not made up.


Exactly. That was the point.

It can’t be the root cause here. Just missing a checklist or flow item can’t explain this flight.
Dismissing this as pilot error is way too easy. There must be some compounding causes.

I see. I’ve never worked there myself, but I know enough friends and colleagues that has.

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We’ll find out when more reliable reports will come in. But I agree that it’s usually not as easy as ‘the guy did or didn’t do this or that’.
Besides, the PF wasn’t alone in the cockpit.

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Hopefully not… :wink:

And, about culture. I heard the FC of Emirates 407 speak about his experience with the tailstrike at Melbourne. I also talked to a Norwegian ATC controller that worked over there. He had a go-bag packed at work, ready to leave on the first plane out, if the situation would require it. I could never work under such conditions.

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Yeah, I have spoken with several ex colleagues who tried to pursue their luck in the middle east or asia as well.
Most returned back to some place in europe aftera fairly short stint after realising there’s more to life than just a fat paycheck.
But to be fair, you don’t have to look that far east to see the cracks unfortunately…

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