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Problems with Polish plane at Heathrow airport

Polish pilots' poor English almost led to mid-air collision over Heathrow

A Polish flight crew forced to rely on air traffic control directions after their navigation system shut down nearly collided with another plane over Heathrow because they had such poor English, it emerged today.

The LOT airlines Boeing 737, carrying 89 passengers to Warsaw, wandered around the skies over London for nearly half an hour as the pilots struggled to understand basic instructions.

The jet's Flight Management System - which provides directions like a car's satnav, but also enables the autopilot - failed because the co-pilot entered the wrong geographic coordinates before taking off.

Instead of entering an westerly longitude as Heathrow lies to the West of the Prime Meridian Line in the London district of Greenwich, he entered an easterly one.

The error meant that the electronic navigational tools that modern pilots use to fly shut down, a report by the Air Accidents Investigations Branch (AAIB) said.

The pilots were forced to fly the plane using standby instruments and struggled to follow the co-ordinates given by air traffic controllers.

Several times the co-pilot, who was flying, turned the aeroplane in the opposite direction given by controllers.

At one point he flew the aeroplane too close to another aircraft, forcing the other to change its course.

It caused a "Short Term Conflict Alert" but was not close enough to count as a "near miss", an AAIB spokesman said.

Eventually controllers guided the aircraft step by step back to Heathrow Airport until they could see the runway where they landed, 27 minutes after take off.

But the June 2007 incident highlights the risk of having so many foreign pilots using British airports who have just a small grasp of English.

Only 15 out of 800 Polish pilots flying internationally have passed the test for the required standard of English, The Times reported today.

English is the international language of aviation but many countries failed to comply with the International Civil Aviation Organisation deadline of March this year for ensuring their pilots were proficient in the language.

The AAIB report said: "The crew of LOT 282 were not able to communicate adequately the nature and extent of their problem.

"The commander, who was making the radio calls was not able to understand some of the instructions."

The investigation concluded that the initial error by the co-pilot was "compounded by the difficulty of obtaining information from the pilots because of their limited command for English".

The report also notes that all airports around London are very close to the Meridian line and that this "can lead crews to make such co-ordinate entry errors of this nature".

In addition, states the report, the Polish airline rarely lands at airports west of the line and so most of the co-ordinates used by its pilots will be "eastings".

The navigational problems, said the report, were compounded by the fact that the aircraft's radio controller could not understand some of the instructions.

A transcript of the radio traffic between Air Traffic Control (ATC) and the aircraft commander is included in the report.

At one point the controller is forced to ask: "At what heading do you think you are flying at the moment."

Later he says he has realised that there are navigational problems and asks if the crew have, "any other problems flying your aircraft".

"Only the navigation," replies the commander.

Even after landing the crew was still in the dark as to why the navigational instruments had shut down and suggested it could have been caused by a passenger who was using a mobile phone.

But extensive tests on the equipment revealed no faults.

The report concludes that: "A fairly simple error...went undetected and led to a serious incident."

It adds: "An incident like this demonstrates how reliant pilots have become on the Flight Management System."

ATC also comes in for criticism for failing to realise how severe the aircraft's navigational difficulties were.

The service now plans to use the incident in training exercises.

LOT airlines is "considering reminding pilots of the necessity to use extra caution when manually entering co-ordinates when at locations close to the Prime Meridian," adds the report.