Tuesday, March 04, 2008

This shouldn't have been a close call

If you haven't seen this video of a Lufthansa Airbus 320 attempting to land in a treacherous crosswind yesterday in Hamburg, Germany, check it out. It's an incredible piece of aviation footage.

Watching these pilots work the stick and rudder on this harrowing approach reminds me of the aviation adage: "Any landing you can walk away from is a good one. ... Any landing you can walk away from AND they can use the plane again? A great one."

Crosswind landings are an art form.

They're the most difficult thing to teach, and certainly the most difficult to learn. Imagine attempting to conduct a symphony while pedaling and balancing on a unicycle at the same time, and doing it gracefully.

I won't go into a technical breakdown of the whole approach, starting with their crab into a fierce wind (about 100 m.p.h., according to news reports), the balance between the aileron and rudder use, and their go-around decision.

After my terrific lesson on spins, I've probably met my quota on aviation posts for non-av people. Just know this: This is a hell of a piece of flying. It took some serious steel nerves to avoid a catastrophe.

But these guys should have never attempted this landing in the first place.

That's where this investigation will eventually end. I hate to blame the pilots, because if they had elected to go to another airport, their pissant middle-manger bosses would have screamed bloody murder for altering a potential on-time arrival.

But ultimately the pilots are in charge of getting onto the ground safely.

They should have never attempted to land at this airport, given the weather conditions.

If they were hellbent on the airport, they should have used a runway that allowed them to fly the approach straight into the wind, not at a crosswind angle to it.

I don't profess to know much about the A320, but I'd be interested to know what its maximum demonstrated crosswind component is.

When engineers are building planes, they certify them as being able to handle a crosswind up to X number of knots. A Cessna 172S, for example, has a maximum demonstrated crosswind component of 17 knots.

That meant the plane could, in layman's terms, track the runway centerline with a direct 17-knot wind at its side.

(Interestingly, the FAA does not call the maximum crosswind component a limitation. They merely say that they've tested it at X knots, and it withstood. That doesn't mean the plane can't withstand higher. It just means that if you choose to land with a crosswind above that number, you're a flying experiment).

Now, I'm sure the A320 has a crosswind component a hell of a lot higher than 17 knots.

But watching the video, you can see that whatever their max is, they've exceeded it.

Notice when the plane is just above the ground, the pilots take the plane out of its crab, straighten the nose and try to point it straight down the runway.

It's precisely at this point the plane gets blown off the runway centerline and toward the left side of the tarmac. If the Lufthansa was within its crosswind component, it would have continued tracking the centerline.

Glad this one had a happy ending, and the pilots did a hell of a job given the circumstances. But they should never have let the approach carry on as long as it did.

When we return again, we'll finish off our two-part series that started in July on the nation's airports and preview the VFR family's upcoming trip to India.



At 8:35 AM, Blogger Smokey Robinson (aka Matt) said...

I actually saw this clip of the same, excerpted from the Today show. The Huffington Post claims the plane was facing 150-mph winds. Apart from the sickening empathy I had for the passengers, my immediate thought was that not even a middle manager's yelling should justify attempting a landing in winds that would be strong enough to slam a Volvo into the side of your house.

I actually thought of sending you this video for your evaluation, but it was so nauseating that I couldn't watch it twice. So thanks for making me watch it twice.


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