The late Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has died at the age of 95, found himself at the centre of a major emergency at Shannon Airport in March 1997 when his plane caught fire after take-off.
In a further twist in the drama, the crew later aborted two attempts to land after reporting issues with the planes flaps, landing gear and instrument landing system display while the airport was also at risk of being forced to close due to deteriorating weather.
The Air Zimbabwe Boeing 707-330B jet had just taken off from Shannon for Harare in Zimbabwe when one of the aircraft’s four engines caught fire.
Mr Mugabe had been in Dublin to attend The Irish Times/Harvard University Colloquium at University College Dublin. His jet took off from Dublin at 9.15pm and touched down at Shannon 25 minutes later.
Mr Mugabe’s flight made a refuelling stop at Shannon as the runway at Dublin was not long enough to facilitate a fully laden Boeing 707. There were 41 passengers and a crew of 12 on board all of whom remained on the plane during refuelling.
After topping up the tanks at Shannon, the jet took off for Harare at 10.47pm however just seconds later, when the jet was just 500 feet above the ground, audio and visual alarms in the cockpit indicated an engine fire. It was quickly confirmed that there was a fire in engine number three.
The crew levelled off at a safe altitude and discharged the built-in fire extinguisher bottles into the engine. The fire was extinguished however the warning light in the cockpit remained illuminated.
As emergency procedures were quickly put into action on the ground, the aircraft circled for over an hour while dumping 10 tonnes of aviation fuel so they could touch down within safe landing weight limits. The crew dump the fuel from the left side dump chute as they couldn’t deploy the chute on the right wing where the engine fire had been.
Emergency plan put in place
Clare County Fire and Rescue Crews from Shannon and Ennis stations, along with several former Mid Western Health Board ambulances and Gardaí were alerted and mobilised to the airport in support of the airport’s fire and rescue service.
Shortly after midnight, the crew attempted a landing at Shannon however reported a possible issue with the plane’s landing gear. The approach was aborted and the crew circled for a second attempt. The captain also reported a problem with the jet’s flaps and instrument landing system display.
As the weather deteriorated, Shannon was at risk of being forced to close. Dublin and Cork airports had already closed due to fog while the crew had considered diverting to Gatwick where Air Zimbabwe had a maintenance base.
In the end, the captain decided to land at Shannon and touched down smoothly, without any further problems.
The jet turned off the runway and stopped on a taxiway so fire crews could inspect the troubled engine. When it was confirmed there was no longer any sign of flames, the captain decided against an emergency evacuation and taxied to the terminal where the passengers disembarked normally.
Word of the emergency emerged quickly and gave reporters time to make their way to Shannon. After the passengers disembarked from the airplane, Mr Mugabe’s director of information Mr George Charamba spoke to waiting journalists.
He confirmed that they could see that an engine on the right wing was on fire. The number 3 engine was the closest of the two right side engines to the fuselage.
“We could see out through the window on the right hand side that there appeared to be a fire in number three engine. But it was quickly brought under control by the crew, who shut off the engine. I do not believe the president was upset although he could clearly see the glow in the night,” Mr Charamba told reporters.
Mr Mugabe and his wife Grace had taken the matter “very calmly” according to Mr Charamba.
Mr Mugabe and some of his group spent the night at the Dromoland Castle while others were sent to hotels in Clare and Limerick.
Mugabe’s own chef cooked for him at Dromoland
David McCann is Executive head chef at Dromoland Castle and remembers the visit.
“We weren’t present at the time. I think he arrived in around 2 or 3am. It was before mobile phones were popular so the first we heard of it was when we got into work in the morning. I would have been in around 7.30am and we heard then that he (Mugabe) was staying here.”
“There was no kerfuffle over anyone except Mr Mugabe. He had his own chef who cooked his breakfast in a separate part of the kitchen. We were not involved in that at all. It was a traditional porridge made with maize I think and he had fruit and other items too. There was someone watching over the cooking all the time and the chef had his own ingredients but we did supply some others and fruit as well,” Mr McCann remembers.
“The food was then taken to his room but that wouldn’t be unusual for dignitaries staying at Dromoland. The rest of his entourage ate in the dining room and from our normal menu and buffet. They were only here for breakfast and were gone again around midday,” Mr McCann added.
Air Zimbabwe flew a replacement aircraft to Shannon the following day to take passengers onto Harare via Gatwick in England. Before leaving Shannon, Mr Mugabe thanked Aer Rianta officials for their courtesy and said he hoped to return to Ireland in the future “in less dramatic fashion.”
The incident was investigated by the Irish Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) who issued their report in May 2005.
It was determined that the the cause of the fire was “a poorly executed welding repair” in the engine following previous repair work.