When pilots landed Saudi Arabian Airlines Airbus A320 at Dubai International Airport (DXB), they had no idea that the flight was going to be greeted with a water salute. Even less so, that the welcoming fanfare will blow open one of the emergency exits and inflate the slide ramp, injuring a passenger along the way.

It was Saudi Arabia National Day back in September 2018. The 119 passengers and 5 cabin crew members on-board Saudia flight SV566, coming from Jeddah King Abdulaziz International Airport (JED) in Saudi Arabia, were given an extra special welcome as they landed in Dubai.

Two fire engines, located on both sides of a taxiway, began spraying water over the jet to form a far-reaching arc. Unfortunately, the left firefighting vehicle turned out to have a roof turret problem, causing the high-pressure water jet suddenly spray up and down, just as the A320 was passing underneath, the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) of the UAE states in the incident report, published on April 11, 2019.

The water jet opened the left forward over-wing emergency exit hatch. The hatch fell into the cabin. The left over-wing emergency slide ramp deployed. The master warning system alerted/sounded. This was the moment the flight crew found out about the water salute.

“[The flight crew] were not aware that a water salute had been arranged on arrival at the gate and therefore they could not inform the cabin crew or passengers prior to the event,” the GCAA report states.

During the incident, one passenger, sitting next to the emergency exit, was “slightly” injured, but after receiving medical attention, continued their journey. No other damage was found, according to the report.

How often water salutes go wrong?

Water salutes are carried out for ceremonial purposes to mark special occasions such as inaugural or final flights, retirement pilots, etc. During them, an aircraft is greeted on an apron or taxiway by fire fighting vehicles expelling plumes of water, forming one or a series of arches.

However, since the process of water salutes is not generally formalized by airlines, airport operators, or airport fire services, as the GCAA has found out, it could go wrong. For instance, if the salute is not properly communicated to the flight crew, as it happened for Saudia, they cannot warn the cabin crew and passengers. This, in turn, might end up with panic onboard ‒ a potential safety threat.

The Report by th General Civil Aviation Authority in the UAE references the following incidents of a water salute gone-wrong:

  • In March 2015, a Virgin Airlines Airbus A330 sustained damage to both engines when, after an inaugural flight from Manchester, the UK, to Atlanta, the United States, foam instead of water was sprayed during a water salute. The subsequent flight was canceled.

  • A Japan Airlines Boeing 787 sustained damage to the wing in 2014 at Tampa International Airport, the United States, when, during a water salute, the right wing hit the water turret of the fire vehicle, which was parked too close to the taxiway. Water salutes at the airport were suspended as a result.

  • In 2006, a United Airlines Boeing B777 sustained engine damage, when firefighters decided to swap water with fire-fighting foam, during a water salute to celebrate a retiring airline pilot, at Dulles Airport, the United States.

-  the General Civil Aviation Authority in the UAE

The last flight of Air Berlin was greeted with an incident-less water salute as it landed at Berlin-Tegel on October 27, 2017.