Nippon Airways grounds all Bombardier planes after landing gear trouble

All Nippon Airways grounded its entire fleet of Bombardier planes on Tuesday after the front landing gear on one failed to descend, forcing the aircraft to make an emergency landing with 60 people on board.

No one was injured when the Bombardier DHC-8 turboprop landed on its rear wheels and then carefully touched its nose to the runway. Sparks shot from the bottom of the white and blue fuselage as the plane skidded to a halt, but the pilot kept it on the tarmac.

The mishap was the latest in a string of problems with ANA's fleet of Canadian-made Bombardier aircraft, which forced Japan's second-largest airline to issue a formal apology last year. ANA said Tuesday it was grounding its fleet of 13 Bombardiers for inspection and wouldn't resume service until their safety had been confirmed.

The plane, carrying 56 passengers and four crew members, circled for nearly two hours over Kochi airport in western Japan as it tried to extend its front wheels and negotiate an emergency landing.

Rescue trucks sprayed the plane with fire retardant chemicals after it landed, and relieved passengers debarked.

The cause of the failure is not yet known, ANA spokesman Daisuke Kato said. The Transportation Ministry planned to launch an investigation, ministry spokesman Tetsu Shimizu said.

In February 2006, another Bombardier plane operated by ANA experienced landing gear problems. That pilot aborted an initial landing attempt after all three sets of wheels failed to deploy. The landing gear was later deployed manually, and none of the 25 passengers and crew was injured.

Later that month, two ANA-operated Bombardier airliners made emergency landings at Osaka airport shortly after taking off. One had problems with its heating system, while a warning lamp in the other signaled something was wrong with one of its doors. No one was injured.

In 2004, the right wheel of a Bombardier broke off while landing at Kochi airport, also with no injuries.

ANA's president apologized for the problems with Bombardier aircraft at the airline's annual shareholder meeting in June 2006. At the time, it had 11 Bombardiers in its fleet and had placed orders for 14 more.

Executive Vice President Shin Nagase apologized again Tuesday for "causing great concern."

Bombardier is in discussions with the airline about its safety concerns, said Masaki Okahata, a spokesman for Sojitsu Corp., a trading company that acts as the manufacturer's representative in Japan, the AP said.

"There has been trouble, but no accidents," Okahata said. "Instead of laying blame, the airlines are talking with the manufacturer about the matter."

Nationwide, there have been 77 reported incidents of irregularities with Bombardier planes since 2003, he said. The problems range from faulty lighting to bigger issues such as failed landing gear.

Bombardier officials at the company's headquarters in Montreal were not immediately available for comment.

The plane on Tuesday had made an earlier approach to the runway but pulled up.

Katsumi Nakamura, ANA operating officer, said the pilot tried "touch-and-go," a practice of briefly touching down and hoping the shock releases the front wheels. Several attempts were unsuccessful, he said.

Soichi Kaji, an aviation expert, was quoted by NHK as saying, "It was almost a perfect emergency landing."

"Apparently the pilot was very calm and did just as he was trained," Kaji said, adding that good emergency preparations at the airport and fair weather helped the situation.

The plane had left Osaka airport earlier in the morning, the AP says.

The worst single airplane disaster in history occurred in Japan in 1985, when a Japan Airlines Boeing jumbo jet crashed into a remote mountain, killing 520 of the 524 people aboard.

The jet was en route from Tokyo to Osaka when it lost control of its tail rudder.

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