While taking off from Baghdad International Airport in Iraq on November 22, 2003, the left wing of a civilian DHL cargo plane with three crew members was struck by a surface-to-air missile. In episode 109 of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, we recount the gripping, 25-minute saga faced by the two pilots and flight engineer in the cockpit as they struggled to fly the plane without any hydraulics, a damaged and blazing left wing, and a leaking fuel supply. Captain Éric Gennotte recalled his earlier training where he had heard United 232 pilot Captain Al Haynes discuss how to use thrust to fly a plane in trouble. Captain Gennotte used this training, and along with incredible assistance from First Officer Steeve Michielsen and Flight Engineer Mario Rofail, the men managed to do just that. The crew finds that if they pull the throttle back and reduce engine power, the plane’s nose drops, and they begin to gather speed. And if they then push the throttles forward and increase engine power, the nose raises back up and they start to climb. Captain Gennotte also famously listened to his crew and revised his plan for the approach. Amazingly, with just eight minutes left before the fire in the left wing burnt completely through, the pilots landed the plane onto the runway. The aircraft then runs off the runway into the sand to its lefthand side, the wheels and thrust kicking up a plume of thick dust, but the sand is helping to slow them down. They careen through the razor wire fence to the left of the runway and carry it with them before the aircraft, finally, stunningly, comes to a silent halt. The amazing feat of flying performed by the flight crew has since been called a master class in not only flying, but also in crew resource management.
Civilian DHL Cargo Plane Takes off From Baghdad Amidst 2003 Iraqi War
It’s November 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq, during the Iraq War. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, in March 2003, United States military forces invaded Iraq vowing to destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and end the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein. Joining the U.S. were British and other coalition forces, which quickly overwhelmed the Iraqi Army. Three weeks after the invasion, Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers famously pulled down a statue of Saddam in Baghdad's Firdos Square.
Despite what was being portrayed as a quick victory by the U.S. and its coalition, elements loyal to Saddam Hussein began to form the core of a postwar insurgency fight that would last for years. By that summer and into the fall of 2003, insurgent forces were attacking coalition forces everywhere. This included a suicide bombing attack on the United Nations (or UN) headquarters in Iraq, which killed Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special representative to Iraq, and twenty-two members of his staff. And as we all know, there were many more of those kinds of attacks to come as the insurgent forces gained access to surface-to-air missiles. With time, the Iraq War became more and more controversial, and the search for alleged WMD was abandoned by the U.S. in January 2004, just a little less than one year after its initial invasion.
When war happens, regardless of the reasons and whether those reasons are later found to be legitimate or not, the people living within a country at war suffer when the important institutions and systems they use in their daily lives begin to fail. Schools close, hospitals become overwhelmed, stores shut down or are damaged and can no longer provide daily provisions for the population. And mail service may also be postponed until the situation on the ground is stable enough for those services to be reinstated.
In November 2003, DHL is one of the few logistics companies who have just won a contract to bring the military forces’ personal mail in and out of war-torn Iraq through Baghdad International Airport. As we all probably know, DHL is a German logistics company that provides courier, package delivery, and express mail service, and is a division of the German logistics firm Deutsche Post. As of today, the company delivers over 1.6 billion parcels per year.
DHL Flight Crew Takes Off Following a Special Procedure to Maximize Safety
Back in 2003 at the time of our story, DHL has flights coming in and out of Baghdad Airport twice a day. The U.S. military was obviously an enormous presence at the airport, as its own planes flew in and out daily, resupplying troops. And because of the threat of attack against the airport, the U.S. military patrols the skies around the airport via Apache helicopters, searching for signs of those who would want to attack an incoming or outgoing plane.
The security presence would have been a much-welcomed sight for this civilian DHL flight today, which is an Airbus A300. On it, we have three flight crew members: 38-year-old Captain Éric Gennotte who has 3,300 total flight hours, more than half of them logged in the A300; 29-year-old First Officer Steeve Michielsen who had 1,275 hours of flight experience; and 54-year-old flight engineer Mario Rofail who had 13,400 hours of flight experience. This crew had flown into war zones before.
Air traffic control (or ATC) at the airport this morning is being handled by the Australian military. After being cleared by ATC for takeoff, the DHL cargo plane took to the sky shortly at 6:30 UTC. But this is no ordinary takeoff. In fact, because the aircraft is flying in an active war zone, the crew will follow a special takeoff procedure with an important goal in mind: to takeoff and reach altitude at 10,000 feet (or 3,000 m) as quickly as possible, and by doing so, minimizes the plane’s ground proximity time. The plane has been configured accordingly for this special procedure: the pilots will take off at maximum thrust with slats only, then retract the slats, and climb high and fast at 215 knots (or 247 mph) until they reach 10,000 feet. And soon after liftoff, this is exactly what the crew are doing as they sail up above the airport, getting higher each second, and the airport getting smaller and smaller on the ground below. As any pilot who flies into war zones will tell you, this is when the mood in the cockpit changes – everyone is aware of the potential danger surrounding them.
Meanwhile, back on the ground in Iraq, Paris Match reporter Claudine Vernier-Palliez accompanies a Fedayeen commando unit. Claudine has been embedded with the group and has reported on its attacks on coalition forces throughout Iraq. After stopping along a dirt road right after dawn, she watches as the group of men take out guns and hand-held missiles hidden in cloth in the brush near the edge of the road. The journalist and her photographer then follow the commando unit by car to a second location, which was just a few kilometers from the Baghdad airport, and this time the leader of the commandos ask them to watch the unit conduct what it called a “special operation.” They soon reveal to Claudine that they are going to use a missile to shoot down a plane. The journalist is shocked – this is not the story she came for, but it is the story she fears she is about to witness.
DHL Cargo Plane Struck by Missile and Causes Total Loss of Hydraulics
Back in the cockpit onboard the DHL plane, the crew is still on high alert as the aircraft reaches just around 8,000 feet (or 2400 m). And then, the unthinkable happens. The plane is rocked by a loud blast, causing the airframe to shudder violently. Immediately, the cockpit is flooded with master caution warnings and chimes. Captain Gennotte cannot tell if they have just hit something, or if something has hit them. But one thing the crew knows for certain, based on the litany of warnings on their flight displays, is that they have serious problems: the plane is banking at a dangerous angle, and much worse, they are starting to lose all hydraulics.
On the A300, hydraulic fluid runs through a series of pipes all throughout the length of the plane and its wings. Hydraulics control the various flight control systems and help the plane to perform its most critical functions: climbing, descending, and turning. The blast just tore through the left wing, ripping open the back edge of the wing where the hydraulic fluids are carried by the pipes, making the pipes burst and the hydraulic fluids to rapidly drain out. As the narrator to the Air Crash Investigation said of the damage to the left wing and the pipes, it’s like driving a car at high speed and suddenly losing the steering wheel. This is catastrophic damage – the ability to stay airborne is now measured in minutes.
DHL Flight Crew Face Extraordinary Circumstances in Cockpit
First Officer Michielsen exclaims to Captain Gennotte, “What do we do? What do we do?” His question is perhaps the most difficult question that Captain Gennotte will ever face. What should he command his crew to do next? What on earth could possibly save them?
Staying calm is their main focus right now. First Officer Michielsen makes an emergency call to Baghdad approach, letting them know of their situation, then Flight Engineer Rofail takes over communication with ATC to allow the pilots to focus on flight controls.
But the pilots fighting for controls is useless – because the control column is now useless. The big picture before the pilots could not be any worse: the plane’s ailerons, spoilers, elevators, rudder, and flaps are all immovable, and the plane is also rapidly leaking fuel with the left wing damaged and on fire. And without control, this is not a smooth flight. While still climbing toward 12,000 feet (or 3600 m), the cargo plane begins to porpoise, meaning, it climbs up and down by 3,000-plus feet (or 900 m) like it were a rollercoaster, while rolling left and right as much as 30 degrees.
This is a situation that goes beyond anything a pilot trains for, anything they may have learned. This is a situation that comes down to sheer skill and will – and having the right crew behind the controls. They must do something extraordinary to gain back a level of control.
Captain Gennotte Uses Lessons From United 232 Captain to Fly Crippled DHL Plane
Not long before the incident, Captain Éric Gennotte had attended a flight safety seminar where he heard a presentation by a retired United pilot. But not just any pilot. This was Captain Al Haynes, pilot of United 232, which had suffered a similar total hydraulic failure after an engine disintegrated near Sioux City, Iowa. As we covered on that two-part episode, Captain Haynes and his crew had figured out how to use thrust to steer the airplane—power increased on one wing engine or the other for yaw control, power forward or back evenly on both to climb or descend. Despite the heroic efforts from the crew, in the last 100ft of their emergency approach to Sioux Gateway airport, the DC-10's nose and right wing dropped, the wingtip hit the ground and the huge airliner flipped before sliding to a halt in a storm of flames. Of the 296 people on board, 111 were killed. It was a lesson that Captain Gennotte filed away for future reference. Little did he know he would ever need this knowledge, but on this day in 2003, this is exactly the knowledge he leans into.
Now in the cockpit of the wounded and out of control DHL aircraft, Captain Gennotte tells his crew, “We can use the thrust.” Initially, First Officer Michielsen and Captain Gennotte try to use the control yokes and rudder pedals, but quickly accept they are ineffective. They will need to try and fly this plane with only the engines – this has never been done before in the history of flying. So, they begin to bravely experiment on how to correct the plane’s wildly fluctuating pitch attitude (the nose up and nose down rollercoaster movements).
Over the next ten, tense minutes, through trial and error, and applying their combined years of knowledge and experience, the flight crew becomes very proficient at discovering a way to control the plane. The crew finds that if they pull the throttle back and reduce engine power, the plane’s nose drops, and they begin to gather speed. And if they then push the throttles forward and increase engine power, the nose raises back up and they start to climb. But the trick is to find the right timing to increase and decrease power. During the learning process airspeed lurches wildly between 180kt and 300kt (or between 200 mph and 345 mph).
But there is another factor to consider in addition to the pitch attitude – the plane’s damaged left wing is also creating drag on that same side and pulling the plane to the left in a giant circle. This means they not only need to move the throttles back and forth, to control the pitch attitude, but they must also, at the same time, apply more power to the left engine to make up for the damage to the left wing, which is causing the plane to lose lift. This is a technique known as asymmetrical thrust.
After Gaining Flight Control, DHL Flight Crew Must Plan for Return to Airport
They are now at 4,000 feet (or 1200 m) and have the airport in sight. Captain Gennotte calls for gear down – but there are no systems to automatically drop the gear. Instead, Flight Engineer Rofail must immediately hand-crank the landing gear until it drops, but when it does, it immediately slows the plane down and the nose pitches up. It’s like all their hard work of controlling the plane before is now threatened as they approach a potential stall. Luckily, Captain Gennotte helps them avert disaster and gets the plane back under control, and as he does, he notices that with the landing gear down, the plane is actually a little easier for him to control.
While what they have accomplished is an amazing feat of flying, the DHL plane is not yet out of danger. In fact, Captain Gennotte has, by now, worked out that the plane was indeed struck by a surface to air missile, and now he fears that they could still be a target for a second missile. Though the flight crew has worked out how to gain better control over the plane, it is imperative that they initiate an approach back to Baghdad Airport.
Little did the DHL crew know, but back on the ground, the commando unit fires a second missile at the DHL plane – but unbelievably, this one missed its target. Journalist Claudine Vernier-Palliez cannot believe what she has just witnessed. According to her own account, she never believed the commando unit would actually fire on the plane, and when it did, she felt unsafe in voicing her concerns. She was scared that if she tried to leave or threatened not to cover the incident, that they would shoot and kill her or her photographer. The journalist will later come under fire for not coming out more strongly against the missile strikes.
Back at the Baghdad Airport, a nearby airborne unit of Apache helicopters and their crews, who have been circling the airport, and who are now witnessing the distressed DHL jet struggle, take to the airwaves. All they can do is pass information to the flight crew and to air traffic control. As one pilot said to one of the other helicopter crews, “That’s gut-wrenching, man. They’re up there doing everything they can.” There is also chatter among the helicopter pilots about where the plane may land. One of the helicopter pilots on the channel says, “It may be better to land in the desert – you’d go belly up and the sand could help put out any of the fire.” All this chatter is fine and good – except that the DHL flight crew can hear this chatter. Though they appreciate the assistance from the helicopter crews, hearing them discuss how bad the situation is with one another is a difficult thing for the DHL crew to hear – they are the ones who are going through it.
The DHL flight crew informs air traffic control that they would like to initiate a landing and ATC makes any runway available. ATC has already notified emergency services in case of an explosion or crash landing.
DHL Captain Listens to Crew, Chooses Long Approach Back to Airport
Though this preparation sounds reassuring, back in the air, the flight crew is once again facing another problem. The First Officer notices that they are flying too high and too fast to make a safe landing. But Captain Gennotte doesn’t want to hear it – he tells the First Officer, “we must land!” But First Officer Michielsen is calm, confident, and insistent, reiterating their current position and the fact that they are simply too high and too close to make a safe landing. And Flight Engineer Rofail joins him in agreement. Captain Gennotte then does something that so many other Captains have failed to do in moments like these: he listens to his crew. He realizes they are correct – if they try and land right now, the plane will crumble into the asphalt in a ball of fire. This is what crew resource management is supposed to do – this is the value it brings to urgent situations. The new landing approach they will need to make is something known as a long final – they will need to turn around, fly away from the airport for 22 miles (or 37 km), and then turn again, looping back on a long final approach, slowly descending the entire time.
Time is of the utmost importance – for the last 20 minutes, as the crew fought to control the airplane, the left wing has been burning the entire time. They don’t have multiple chances of making this landing. The structure of that left wing could become fully compromised at any point. And, to add to the list of more things that could go wrong, they are also running out of fuel. Remember, they are controlling both the pitch attitude and the bank angle of the plane using two engines – they cannot do any of this without both engines.
The flight crew knows they will be able to reach the runway – but they don’t know if they can make the landing. They also don’t know, once they finally do land, if the landing gear can take the higher speed landing. Against all their instincts, they will need to come in fast on the landing, or else, the nose will plummet and crumble into the ground and crash. Their speed at landing will be about 60 mph (or 100 kph) faster than it normally would be.
Leading Up to Tense Landing, DHL Flight Crew Continues to Work Together
Through this entire period, the three men work together to monitor distance, altitude, speed, attitude, fuel, and engine power. At every step of the way, they make decisions together. And now it’s the final turn back toward the airport. They will need to turn by applying greater power to the left engine to make them go right. If they go left, they must apply more power to the right engine. They make the final turn and begin to line the plane up with the runway. When the aircraft begins to turn toward the airport, it is about 22 miles (or 37km out) and at about 3,000ft (or 900 m).
Captain Gennotte stabilizes the aircraft at that height, heading inbound in approximately level flight. The visibility is excellent, but Captain Gennotte realizes the aircraft is drifting to the right. He calls First Officer Michielsen for a wind vector reading and is told it is 290 degrees at about 20kt (or 23 mph). Based on their shifting position, the crew find they are lined up best to land on runway 33 left, which is further from obstacles (like the hangar full of military personnel). As they get closer and closer, First Officer Michielsen reminds the Captain, counter-intuitively, he must not reduce the throttles before touchdown. It was that move which, after brilliant handling beforehand, led the United 232 flight crew to a crash-landing, as the nose and one wing dropped just before the aircraft landed.
Flight Engineer Rofail, the senior crew member by far in terms of age and experience, carries out the final approach checks in his head without disturbing the pilots. He depressurizes the aircraft so the doors can be opened on landing while the pilots are busy trying to direct the aircraft and manage its stable descent toward runway 33 left.
As landing becomes imminent, and the aircraft is going to make it to a runway touchdown, but the plane is coming down with a heading slightly to the left of centerline of the runway. In an attempt to line up, the captain slightly reduces the right throttle, but there is no attempt to close them both, as would be instinctive. He is intent upon not having another United 232.
DHL Cargo Plane Makes Harrowing Landing After 25-Minute Ordeal in Sky
Twenty-five minutes after the missile strike, the DHL plane comes down onto runway 33 left – but hard and fast. Both pilots revert to instinct and are pumping the rudder pedals, stick and control wheel – all uselessly. None of them are functional. Remembering this, and springing into action, Flight Engineer Rofail grabs the throttles and slams them fully into reverse – they have no braking system – the only thing to do is use the reverse thrust to slow the plane down. The aircraft then runs off the runway into the sand to its lefthand side, the wheels and thrust kicking up a plume of thick dust, but the sand is helping to slow them down. The aircraft is suffering jolts registering 7.5g vertical acceleration on the uneven ground and several tires burst under the enormous pressure. They careen through the razor wire fence to the left of the runway and carry it with them before the aircraft, finally, stunningly, comes to a silent halt.
Flight Engineer Rofail already has both front doors open and ready for evacuation, and the crew exit down the slide on the right. They run from the aircraft, believing the fuel tanks could explode at any moment, but are stopped by soldiers screaming, “Halt! Halt!” They don’t realize it, but they are running through a minefield. Remember, this is a war zone, and any and all areas could be dangerous that have not already been cleared. The flight crew wait, frozen and completely anxious, until a rescue vehicle is called to guide them safely out of the minefield.
That evening, the three men were back in their hotel bar in Bahrain when the news about what they had just been through came onto CNN. First Officer Michielsen later said of that moment, "In the morning we were just freighter pilots. That evening a Lockheed C-5 test pilot from Andrews Air Force Base wanted to shake our hands."
2003 Attempted Takedown of DHL Cargo Plane Considered a Master Class of Flying and Crew Resource Management
The flight crew of this DHL cargo plane had survived – against all odds. Investigators later determined that the fire that blazed in the left wing would have burned through the wing’s main spar (or the inner steel skeleton that makes up the wing’s structure) in just eight more minutes.
Flight Safety Australia published a very technical account and illustration of what the crew faced that day. From a crew resource management perspective, it was a case study in all the right things to do. The publication said this: “It had been a steep learning curve for the crew at the height of tension. Gennotte focused on keeping the aircraft under control. Michielsen, meanwhile, called out distances and altitudes. He stressed the point that the power must not be completely reduced on touch down; otherwise, the symmetrical thrust would induce a turn to the left, particularly undesirable just before ground contact. Rofail, for his part, monitored the fuel remaining in the damaged left wing. It was vital that both engines were kept running by ensuring a positive supply of fuel and ignition. If one of the engines had lost power or failed, the aircraft and crew would have certainly been lost. He was therefore prepared to open the cross feed in case the left main tank emptied, but not too soon because the fuel in the right wing would then be lost through the leak on the left side. Furthermore, he was able to relieve both pilots by taking over all radio communication and made sure the aircraft was depressurized before touchdown to guarantee a successful emergency evacuation.”
The crew have since listened to the cockpit voice recording and say they are quite surprised at how calm they all sound. Flight Engineer Rofail said of their collaboration that day, "All you can do is apply common sense and stay calm. We were the right combination of crew." He also added about the uniqueness of the situation, “The rulebook has gone out the window. Situations like this are unique every time. You cannot train for them. You cannot write a checklist for them."
The crew's co-operation during this emergency was impeccable, and thanks to the leadership of Captain Gennotte, who is not merely an able pilot, but an egalitarian leader who makes good use of all information fed to him by his crew and who was open to changing his mind in one of the most critical moments of the flight.
Obviously, from an investigative standpoint, the cause of the accident was straightforward: the DHL plane had indeed been struck by a surface to air missile fired by insurgent forces. But what the industry and experts marveled at was the amazing skills and collaboration demonstrated by the crew. This is the true legacy of this accident – that being open to ideas and collaborating can actually make us all safer.
And, perhaps the other important legacy of the 2003 DHL attempted takedown over Baghdad is this – that a pilot sitting in a training session listened to another pilot talk about his own lessons learned from one of the most important and devastating commercial air disasters ever – United 232 – later put those lessons learned into operation during his own flight crew’s catastrophic emergency. In one of his many interviews about the 2003 missile strike, Captain Éric Gennotte said, sitting in that cockpit that day, he remembered Sioux City. He remembered Captain Al Haynes. The fact that the DHL flight crew survived at all tells us the true value of learning from disasters of the past – because we never know who it will end up saving in the future. But we know that they can and do. And THAT is the incredible story of how this world-class DHL flight crew saved their plane and their own lives during the 2003 Baghdad DHL attempted shootdown.