This week marks the 25th anniversary of a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340 experiencing a landing gear malfunction and landing without one set of its main landing gear fully deployed. Although the aircraft was extensively damaged in the subsequent landing attempt, it was eventually repaired and later returned to service with the airline. No passengers or crew were seriously injured in this remarkable incident.

Background to the flight

On November 5th, 1997, Virgin Atlantic Airways flight VS024 from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) was nearing the end of its flight across the Atlantic Ocean to land at London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR).

The flight was being operated by one of the airline’s Airbus A340-300 aircraft, registered as G-VSKY and named ‘China Girl‘. This particular aircraft was the 16th A340 built by Airbus and was delivered to the airline new from the manufacturer on January 21st, 1994. The plane was three years and ten months old at the time of the incident.

Flight VS024 was a routine scheduled flight between Los Angeles and London Heathrow – a route flown twice daily by the airline towards the end of 1997, alongside VS008, operated at that time by a Boeing 747-400. On the day in question, flight VS024 had 98 passengers aboard, along with 16 crew members.

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An almost incident-free Atlantic crossing

The flight departed Los Angeles without incident, except the crew noticed that the undercarriage took slightly longer to retract than usual. However, without any further adverse indications, the flight proceeded to follow its flight plan across the Atlantic.

In the cruise portion of the flight, upon a routine scan of the flight instruments, the crew noticed that there was a warning on the Electronic Centralised Aircraft Monitoring (ECAM) system showing that the number #6 brake temperature (relating to the inboard rear wheel on the left main landing gear) was unserviceable. Again, this caused little concern on the flight deck, and VS024 continued on course.

The first signs of an anomaly

The rest of the flight was uneventful until G-VSKY joined the approach for runway 27R at London Heathrow Airport. At approximately eight nautical miles from touchdown, upon the crew selecting the landing gear down, the ECAM showed a ‘left main gear unsafe’ warning on the pilots’ main panel.

The warning persisted as the plane flew down the approach, so the first officer as the designated pilot flying on VS024, initiated a go-around at 2.5 miles from touch down and followed radar vectors from air traffic control to take up the hold at the Bovingdon VOR, to the northwest of Heathrow.

Once established in the hold, the crew, liaising with Virgin’s operations and engineering departments, ran through various checklists and attempted to lower the gear by various means, all of which were unsuccessful.

As the crew had no way to inspect the state of the landing gear themselves, the decision was taken to perform a flypast at Heathrow so that company engineers could inspect the landing gear from the ground.

The aircraft overflew the central area at Heathrow, and the crew also attempted a ‘gravity extension’ of the undercarriage, but again without success. Following the flypast, the diagnosis relayed to the crew was that the left main landing gear was ‘hanging in the bay’ and was only partially deployed.

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Preparing for a landing attempt

The crew was initially asked to perform a ‘dumbell’ turn and to fly past the airfield one more time in the opposite direction for an additional inspection. However, as this would have been against the normal flow of traffic, plus by this point, the aircraft was starting to run low on fuel, this idea was eliminated.

A suggestion for the plane to perform a ‘touch and go’ to attempt to shake loose the gear was also rejected, as none of the crew had practiced such a maneuver in a simulator, and it was deemed too high a risk.

Another suggestion early on was that G-VSKY diverts to Manston Airport in Kent to execute its emergency landing there, which would have eliminated the risk of one of Heathrow’s two runways being blocked, potentially for some considerable time.

However, this option was discounted due to the crew’s lack of familiarity with Manston and its lack of suitable emergency services support to deal with an incident of this magnitude. The aircraft’s low fuel state by this stage also ruled out this option.

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Out of options

This left the crew of VS024 with performing its emergency landing at Heathrow, an airport with which the crew was familiar and adequate on-site emergency support was available. Virgin Atlantic also had its own hangar and engineering base at the airport, which would be required should the aircraft be able to be recovered following the landing.

Once all options to manually lower the gear had been exhausted, the cabin crew were instructed to prepare the passenger cabin for an emergency landing. Passengers were reminded of the brace position and to expect to disembark via the emergency evacuation slides once the aircraft came to a halt after landing.

With the aircraft now running low on fuel, Heathrow offered VS024 the use of runway 27L at the airport to carry out the emergency landing. This was so that as the aircraft decelerated after the touchdown and was likely to slew to the left due to the gear’s predicted failure on that side, it would slide to the opposite direction to the main terminal area.

The captain of the flight briefed his crew that as the aircraft touched down, for the cruise relief pilot to shut down engines 1 and 4 immediately and then engines 2 and 3 as the plane rolled out along the runway to minimize the risk of a fire.

With the flight crew, cabin crew, and passengers briefed, G-VSKY positioned onto the final approach for Heathrow’s runway 27L. It was now around 16:20 in the late afternoon, with light fading as dusk settled around Heathrow.

The landing itself

Upon touchdown, the captain attempted to keep the left wing raised for as long as possible. In doing so, the plane banked heavily to the right resulting in the pod of the number #4 engine impacting and scraping along the runway, resulting in a brief stream of sparks before the aircraft decelerated and settled on its left side.

During the landing, all four tires on the right main gear burst as the gear assembly pivoted, and the wheels broke up.

Upon the aircraft coming to a halt and all four engines shut down, the crew gave the order to evacuate the plane. Luckily, there had been no injuries from the touchdown or landing phase, and all passengers and crew evacuated the aircraft via the slides, assisted by the airport fire service, which was on the scene as soon as the plane came to a halt. Five passengers and two crew members were slightly injured as they evacuated the aircraft.

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The following day, the aircraft was jacked up and eventually removed to the Virgin Atlantic maintenance area for further inspection. Emergency repairs were carried out to the surface of runway 27L so that it could be put back into service later that day.

A low-quality video of the landing of flight VS024 taken by Heathrow Airfield Operations can be found here.

Subsequent investigation

The investigation into the incident carried out by the Air Accident Investigation Branch, a division of the UK Department of Transport, was published in June 2000. In the final report’s synopsis, the AAIB praised the crew of VS024 for the way that they handled the emergency and the subsequent emergency landing and evacuation. The report states that,

“The flight crew of Virgin Atlantic flight VS024 responded to the in-flight emergency with commendable judgment and conducted a skillful landing, with the Airport Emergency Services in full and effective attendance. The evacuation was completed with minor injuries to five passengers and two crew members. The post-evacuation handling of the passengers and crew was efficient and effective. Only minor evacuation injuries were sustained by the evacuees of Virgin Atlantic flight VS024.”

The final report’s findings

Further examination of the left main gear by AAIB inspectors following the recovery of G-VSKY to the Virgin Atlantic hangar found that the gear had been jammed by the number #6 wheel brake torque rod, which had disconnected from its brake pack assembly and had become trapped in the keel beam structure.

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Amazingly, the associated torque rod pin was subsequently found on the beach beyond the end of runway 24L at Los Angeles International Airport, the point of departure for the flight, a few days after the dramatic landing at Heathrow.

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The probable causes of the incident were listed in the final report by the AAIB as follows –

  • Full deployment of the left main landing gear was prevented by the unrestrained end of the number #6 brake torque rod having become trapped in the keel beam structure within the gear bay, jamming the landing gear in a partially deployed position.
  • The torque pin that connected the number #6 brake torque rod to that wheel brake assembly had disengaged during landing gear retraction after take off from Los Angeles, allowing the unrestrained rod to pivot freely about the retained end.
  • The torque pin and its retaining assembly had been subject to higher axial and torsional loads than predicted during aircraft braking in service. These loads resulted from elastic deformation of the wheel axle, brake and torque rod, and assembly without the correct axial clearance due to prior undetected displacement of the associated bushes. The precise mode of failure of the retaining assembly bolt, nut, and cotter pin could not be ascertained in the absence of these parts.
  • This design of wheel brake assembly had satisfactorily passed the related certification wheel brake structural torque test to the requirements. However, the latter contained no requirement to use a representative axle or other means to reproduce the axle deflections which occurred during aircraft braking in service and did not require post-torque test strip assessment of brake assemblies for resultant evidence of overstressing deformation, which did not produce component failure.

The report issued several recommendations to airlines operating the Airbus A340-300 and Airbus as the manufacturers to prevent further incidents of this type from reoccurring.

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What happened to the aircraft?

The aircraft involved, G-VSKY, remained in the Virgin Atlantic hangar at Heathrow for several months, undergoing repairs. It eventually returned to service with the airline in mid-1998. It continued to fly for Virgin Atlantic until it retired from service with the airline and returned to the lessor in November 2003.

The plane was then parked until January 2004, when it entered service with British West Indian Airways, registered as 9Y-JIL, with which it stayed until January 2007, when it was again returned to the lessor.

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It was subsequently stored at Munich Airport (MUC) in Germany for a couple of months and was re-registered as D-AIEL in March 2007. It was then stored at Hamburg Airport (HAM) until July 2007, when it was ferried to Goodyear Airport (GYR) in Arizona, USA, where it was finally broken up in early 2009.

Given what could have been a disaster for all those onboard VS024, as well as Virgin Atlantic Airways and Airbus itself, the outcome of this incident was probably as good as it possibly could have been.

All those onboard VS024 walked away, the aircraft was repaired and could be re-used, and Virgin Atlantic and the crew of VS024 were widely praised both in the media following the incident and in the subsequent AAIB report.

One might imagine that any particular airline would only suffer from one such incident. However, against all the odds, Virgin Atlantic suffered a remarkably similar event in 2014, when one of the airline’s Boeing 747-400s had to return to London Gatwick with a landing gear issue.


Photo: Getty Images

The subsequent emergency landing was complicated by the inability of one main set to deploy, although miraculously, the outcome was just as successful as that of VS024 almost 17 years previously.

While emergency landings following landing gear issues are rare, such incidents occasionally occur. Indeed, as recently reported by Simple Flying, fully gear-up landings are also undertaken.

Do you recall the events involving VS024 back in 1997? Did you ever fly on the aircraft involved following the incident? Tell us more in the comments – we’d love to hear from you!

Sources: Air Safety Network, AAIB,, ch-aviation,


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