A Flybe flight carrying 44 passengers plummeted toward the ground shortly after takeoff from Belfast City Airport because of an autopilot error, a UK government report revealed Thursday.
The aircraft was only 928 feet (283 meters) from the ground when the commander managed to put the plane back into a climb, the Air Accidents Investigations Branch report into the January 11 incident said.
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The plane, which was bound for Glasgow Airport, had reached a height of 1,350 feet before the autopilot kicked in. At this point, an incorrect autopilot altitude setting -- which gave a target altitude of zero feet -- meant it "pitched nose-down and then descended rapidly," investigators said.
When the commander, one of four crew on board, realized what was happening, he swiftly disconnected the autopilot and regained control of the aircraft, which was descending at a maximum of 4,300 feet per minute.
The descent was so steep that the crew "subsequently reported that they had become visual with the ground during the recovery," the report said.
Once back at the correct altitude, the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 aircraft continued to Glasgow, where it made an uneventful landing. No one was injured.
The AAIB concluded that the incident was down to the crew's selection of a particular autopilot mode before takeoff. The crew failed to spot the incorrect mode in part because a late change to the aircraft's payload left them with reduced time to carry out preflight checks, the report said.
"As a result of this event the operator has taken several safety actions including revisions to simulator training and amendments to the taxi checklist," the report said.
Flybe, an independent regional airline based in England, said it "implemented remedial actions quickly in response to the incident" and changed procdures and training to lessen the risk of a similar incident. The carrier, which operates over 158,000 flights a year, said "the safety of our passengers and crew remains our number one priority."