A Boeing 767 ferrying more than 200 passengers and crew had to make an emergency landing yesterday at Arusha Airport, which normally handles light aircraft. The Ethiopian-registered jet cruised the entire length of the runway before skidding and coming to a stop on the grass.
The mid-day drama raised questions about safety at the busy airport, which was thrown off balance last week when the tyres of a PrecisionAir plane that had just landed burst.
No one was injured in yesterday’s drama, which saw the plane skid into the rain-soaked grass at the end of the runway. It took hours, though, for the passengers to leave as the airport did not have the stairs normally used for disembarking and boarding.
Aviation officials were hard put to explain the circumstances in which the plane landed at Kisongo along the Dodoma-Arusha highway instead of Kilimanjaro International Airport (KIA), some 50 kilometres away. “It probably landed here by mistake,” said airport Manager Esther Dede. “The pilot was not supposed to land here because this is not an airport its size.”
Operations at the airport, which is used by scheduled and charter flights, came to a halt as rescue and fire teams and security officials rushed to the scene.
Arusha Regional Commissioner Magesa Mulongo arrived at around 3pm and took charge of the frantic efforts to free passengers stuck in the plane for lack of appropriate elevators. “What is being done now is to have people out of the aircraft and then reduce the cargo so that the plane can take off easily for another airport,” he told The Citizen on the phone.
The regional administrator, who is also the chairman of the Defence and Security Committee, confirmed that the plane “landed safely” and that nobody had been injured. Teams of security officials, including armed police, were at the scene to ensure law and order.
The doctor in charge of Mt Meru Regional Hospital, Dr Josiah Mlay, said doctors and nurses had been rushed in though nobody had been brought to the medical centre.
An aviation official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the aircraft may have been destined for KIA or any other major airport in the East African region. He hinted that the mishap could have been caused by human error or little knowledge of the area by the pilot.
Mr Bakari Murusuri, a senior official at Kilimanjaro Airports Development Company, which manages KIA, was unable to confirm whether or not the plane was headed to KIA but said the airport handles at least three Ethiopian Airlines flights a day.
He was also puzzled as to why the big aircraft landed at the Arusha airport. “In case of such emergencies, the plane could have been diverted to Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar or Nairobi,” he said. “We have not seen such a thing before.”
Immigration, customs and health services are not available at the airport because it does not handle passengers flying directly into the country. Arrangements were being made yesterday to transfer the passengers to KIA.
A local Arusha radio station reported late yesterday that it took hours for the doors of the plane to open. They did so only after special equipment was brought in. The plane made the emergency landing around noon.
Sources in Arusha said the plane approached from the east, leading to speculation as to why an aircraft that size was heading to the small airport. Said a source who did not want to be named: “We sensed something was wrong because of the way it was flying. It looked like it would crash.”
Hundreds of Arusha residents dashed to the scene, many of them watching the unfolding events from the safety of the main road as access to the airport was restricted.