There’s no doubt that the 54 passengers and four crewmembers onboard the ATR-72 commuter that hit the surface of the Mediterranean Sea on approach to Morocco’s Al Hoceima Airport are lucky to be alive. Not only that, but it’s an accident that never should’ve happened, and the Moroccan safety agency’s report, which was released earlier this week, points to some shocking flying decisions the captain and the first officer made in the process.
It was almost exactly two years ago that the Royal Air Maroc Express flight took off from Tangier headed for Al Hoceima, Morocco. If you’re not familiar with it, the ATR-72 is a twin-engine turboprop commuter plane with high-mounted engines on the wing. On that day’s mission, which began at Casablanca earlier, the crew had landed once before at Al Hoceima. The procedure flown on that first leg to Al Hoceima was a non-precision VOR/DME to Runway 17. The approach, of course, has no vertical guidance.
On that first approach, the pilot flying was the 61-year-old captain. And he descended well below the approach’s minimum altitude of 1,030 feet, desending as low as 45 feet until climbing slightly higher, just over 100 feet, and ultimately finding the runway and successfully landing.
On the second approach to Al Hoceima later in the day, with the first officer flying, the crew opted for the VOR/DME approach, for which the minimum descent altitude was 760 feet. On this approach, for which the crew disabled the ground proximity warning system, which, it goes without saying is a major breach of operating procedures, the co-pilot descended to 80 feet, at which point there appeared to be a struggle for control of the aircraft, with the co-pilot trying to climb but the captain pushing even harder to continue the descent.
Soon afterward, the plane’s landing gear hit the water with substantial force, and the first officer applied power, the captain let go of the controls, and the plane was able to climb, diverting to a different airport, Nador, where it was able to land. In reporting the diversion, the captain declared the reason was that the plane had struck a bird.
The damage to the plane was substantial, with deformation of structural and aerodynamic components. Investigators cited the co-pilot’s actions in limiting damage to the plane by successfully wresting control and flying climbing it to safety. In this case, damage he avoided was nothing less than the destruction of the aircraft and, far more importantly, the almost certain loss of all 58 souls aboard.