A LIVERPOOL-BOUND plane came close to disaster when a cabin crew mistakenly herded passengers to the back of the aircraft in an emergency.
The crew's failure to follow standard procedures put the British Aerospace ATP aircraft beyond its specified centre of gravity limit, added the report from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB)
The drama on board the Emerald Airways flight began soon after it took off from the Isle of Man's Ronaldsway airport on the evening of May 23, 2005, en route to Liverpool.
A broken seal caused a fine mist of hydraulic fluid, which staff confused for smoke, to fill the front of the 64-seat plane.
The investigation said cabin crew failed to follow standard emergency procedures and rushed the 33 passengers, many struggling to breathe, towards the rear of the plane.
This caused the aircraft to dip dangerously to the rear as the centre of gravity shifted backwards under the weight of people moving to the back.
Despite the difficulties, the pilot successfully made an emergency landing at Ronaldsway, even though the nose wheel steering system was not working.
Air accident investigators said the cabin crew, who declared an emergency, did not establish whether the hydraulic system problem and the onset of "smoke" were related.
They also did not follow the prescribed actions with regard to smoke on board, did not inform the flight crew they had moved the passengers to the back, and prior to landing back at Ronaldsway airport were not aware the nose wheel steering system was inoperative.
Thirty-three passengers and four crew members suffered minor injuries with one passenger, an asthmatic, taken to hospital.
Describing the incident as "serious", the AAIB said: "The flight crew's non adherence to standard operating procedures and associated checklists put the aircraft and its occupants at unnecessary increased risk from potential handling problems as well as risk of fire and prolonged exposure to hydraulic fluid mist."
The AAIB recommended the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) advise operators of the consequences of repositioning passengers.
The report added no further recommendations as the CAA had suspended Emerald Airways' air operator's certificate in May 2006 and the company had effectively ceased trading.
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