Why I want to be an airline pilot

A Lufthansa crew has been in the news lately (link).  They attempted to land an Airbus A320 at Hamburg in a strong gusty crosswind, failed to stabilize the approach, touched a wingtip, added power and went around for another try.  Here are excerpts from some news stories:  “pilots avert major crash”, “saved the lives of 131 passengers”, “The aircraft’s pilot, referred to simply as ‘Oliver A,’ has now been branded a ‘hero,’ for ensuring that the plane landed safely the second time around and for averting what could have very easily turned into a truly fatal disaster.”

Out of the hundreds of newspaper accounts of this incident, none mentioned the fact that nothing required the pilots to attempt to land at Hamburg in this huge windstorm in the first place.  Hamburg has four runways.  Nothing required the pilots to continue on the runway that they were approaching once they realized what a heavy crosswind was involved.  Nothing required the pilots to continue the approach once they realized that they couldn’t keep the airplane stabilized on centerline and on glideslope.  Had this been a light airplane, people would have said “Look at this idiot; he shouldn’t have continued to that airport once he received the weather; he shouldn’t have accepted that runway; he shouldn’t have continued the approach.”  Take the same guy and add 131 passengers and now he is a hero.

Almost everything that happens in an airplane can be predicted 30 minutes prior.  In developed non-mountainous countries the weather does not sneak up on a pilot.  The prudent pilot uses superior judgment so that superior skill is never required.

[I am not putting myself above this Lufthansa pilot.  I made an unnecessary landing in a heavy (for the kind of airplane that I was flying) gusty crosswind because my friend was late for his meeting and I didn't want to divert to another airport where a landing would have been easy (full story).  I don't call myself a hero, though.  I call myself an idiot who is lucky not to have scraped a wingtip.]

15 Comments

  1. David Creemer

    March 4, 2008 @ 1:04 pm

    1

    I fly as well (also just for recreation), and I recognize that one of our collective traits as pilots is critiquing the flying of others. There may be downsides to that, but in general it seems like a good thing.

    That video clip was sent to me without any surrounding article, and as I watched it I kept saying to myself “that’s not a stabilized approach!” I then read the news accounts and was also amazed to see the pilot credited with the “save.” I don’t know much about being a professional pilot, but I would be very surprised if Luftansa didn’t have a “must be established on a stabilized approach…” policy at the very least.

    This (near) event featured a top-tier airliner landing at a world-class airport. 100+ mph crosswinds don’t “just happen” out of nowhere, as one article claimed.

  2. Peter

    March 4, 2008 @ 9:49 pm

    2

    A spokesman from Lufthansa praised the pilot and mentioned he was on a stabilized approach. I guess that must mean every single approach I’ve ever done was “stabilized.”

    What I saw was that it looked like the pilot did not lower the *right* wing as would be necessary to counter a wind from the right side. This should have been done in a smooth motion with straightening the plane to the runway with the rudder. It looked like there was a pause and then the wind got under the right wing and started pushing it over. Remember that big turbines take a few seconds to spool up (unlike little piston engines which respond almost immediately) so the actual command for more thrust occured before the wingtip scraped the ground and yeah things were probably dicey in the cockpit right about then.

    But yes, Philip, the real problem was the continuation of the approach under such conditions. It seemed squirrely enough that they should have probably broken it off and either tried a different runway or even diverted.

    Yeah I know, easy for us to say.

  3. demetri

    March 4, 2008 @ 10:20 pm

    3

    Maybe the guy got slapped internally but the airlines PR dept spun it to the media. Which story would an editor prefer: idiot pilot almost kills 131 or hero pilot saves 131? Since the public “knows” airline pilots are heroic and infallible that’s what the public wants to see reinforced.

  4. Jim H

    March 4, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

    4

    So that your readers might watch that aborted landing:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueJeC2pxxbM

    Often, newspaper writers are trying to sell newspapers. Hero stories sell papers, even if they are heros only in the mind of the writers.

  5. ATB

    March 4, 2008 @ 11:47 pm

    5

    Phil,

    the plane in question was initially piloted by the 24-year old co-pilot; once she messed up the initial attempt, the 39-year old captain took over (this is known through the German media).

    The questions you ask remain valid. However, other, perhaps more pertinent ones, now arise.

  6. jon

    March 5, 2008 @ 3:13 am

    6

    Maybe Lufthansa and JAR have a special relationship. (The METAR showed the max wind gust to be 59kts. BTW)

    Regardless of what the press has to say about it had there been an N on this planes tail the FAA would have already invited the crew to take a 709 ride.

  7. Florian von Walter

    March 5, 2008 @ 8:51 am

    7

    Actually the “hero” story was only in the first couple of hours. Later the whole incident was questioned and the opinion from most experts was that the pilots were not forced to land under these conditions, they could have easily requested to land on the other runway where the crosswinds were lighter or they could have easily landed on other nearby airports like Bremen or Hannover. So the common perception turned more in the “dumb pilot” direction.
    Besides that I still think that the pilots did a good job in managing the situation. It looks really scary on the video.

    Yesterday German news published that the two pilots were a 39-year old pilot man with 17 years airline experience and 6 years being a captain and a 24-year old pilot woman who was in charge of the landing. Taking that into consideration the reaction on the crosswind was marvelous but the decision to land at all is still questionable.

    BTW: Hamburg has only two runways but they are nearly vertical to each other. See here: http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&geocode=&q=germany+hamburg+airport&sll=42.70438,-78.91389&sspn=0.018449,0.045061&ie=UTF8&z=13

  8. Davi

    March 5, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    8

    Do commercial pilots ever encounter pressure to land on time, even if conditions are rough, so as not to disrupt the airline’s scheduled flow of passengers and planes? Maybe something like that is what happened here.

  9. philg

    March 5, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

    9

    Florian: From a pilot’s point of view, Hamburg has four runways: 05, 15, 23, 33 (oriented magnetic 050, 150, 230, 330). Note that these correspond to two physical strips of asphalt, i.e., two runways if you’re a snowplow or doing repaving. So given perfect information and stable wind direction, a pilot should never be forced to land with the wind at more than a 45-degree angle. If the wind is insanely gusty, though, oftentimes it will shift quite a bit between the time that you set up for Runway X and the time that the wheels are touching down on Runway X. The appropriate thing to do at that point is add power and go around, but pilots execute many fewer go-arounds than they should (and virtually all pilots would agree that they should have gone around more often).

    Davi: Get-there-itis is a common cause of accidents for pilots at all levels. I think it is actually worse for private pilots. If it is my airplane and I want to see my friend in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, I will not be happy to divert and stay in a sterile hotel in Reading, PA instead. The professional pilot is going to end up in some hotel somewhere anyway and has less personal bias towards completing the flight as planned. I think that is one reason that the airlines have such a great safety record. As for management, the airline obviously does want to keep their schedule. On the other hand, the pilots are in a union and if the pilot in command decides to divert there isn’t much that management can do.

  10. Cesar Brea

    March 5, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

    10

    Philip, your point reminds me of the quote from Thomas Cleary’s edition of Sun Tzu’s “The Art Of War”:

    According to an old story, a lord of ancient China once asked his physician, a member of a family of healers, which of them was the most skilled in the art. The physician, whose reputation was such that his name became synonymous with medical science in China, replied, “My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house. My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighborhood. As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords.”

  11. Bob

    March 6, 2008 @ 12:46 am

    11

    Has there been any mention of wind shear? I would imagine Hamburg has wind shear detectors around the field perimeter. I wonder if I see an abrupt shift in wind angle, or an increase in velocity, in that video? Large a/c have a lot more momentum to deal with and wind shear is a lot more problematic than in the smaller stuff we fly/have flown where a change in head/cross wind can usually be handled with a quick burst of power.

  12. philg

    March 6, 2008 @ 7:51 pm

    12

    Bob: I’m sure that there was plenty of wind shear if it was gusting to 59 knots. On the other hand, the momentum of a big heavy jet is helpful in keeping the airplane pointed down the runway and on the centerline. Wind shear in a jet mostly becomes dangerous if you lose a lot of airspeed, no?

  13. philg

    March 6, 2008 @ 7:54 pm

    13

    http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2008/03/06/222034/crew-of-wing-strike-lufthansa-a320-was-offered-different.html

    notes that “Germany’s national weather service had issued warnings about the conditions and data from Hamburg indicated gusts approaching 50kt” and then “Runway 23 was in use at Hamburg when the incident occurred, around 13:45. Weather information shows the winds were from the north-west, which meant an approach to this runway was subject to strong crosswinds.”

    “Lufthansa says air traffic controllers “offered to the pilot” runway 33. This runway, at 3,666m (12,030ft), is slightly longer and allows an approach on a more north-westerly heading. Runway 23 was the one designated for landings at the time, says the airline, adding that it is equipped with better instrument landing and guidance systems than 33.”

    “The crew made a second attempt to land at Hamburg, this time opting for an approach to runway 33, and touched down without further incident.”

  14. ray

    March 9, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

    14

    When I first saw this last week I also said what idiots! However, I looked more carefully at the video. It looks like the approach is stabilized until about 200 AGL. There appears to be more and more correction into the wind as a continuous gust hits the plane.

    As Peter has commented the problem occurs when the pilot tries to correct the crab before rollout and the right wing comes up a little into the wind. At this point another gust seems to further push the wing up and recovery is initiated.

    First, airline pilots are told to crab into the wind for crosswind landings. This is done for passenger comfort. Second, this is a stabilized approach. Third, the fact the the F.O was a woman should never enter into the picture. Every female pilot I’ve known was better than most male pilots I’ve known.

    So, while I don’t think they were “heros”, it looks to me like a competent crew handling an abnormal situation well.

  15. Gordon R. Vaughan

    March 11, 2008 @ 3:33 am

    15

    “I looked more carefully at the video. It looks like the approach is stabilized until about 200 AGL. There appears to be more and more correction into the wind as a continuous gust hits the plane.”

    Yeah, the real mistake was probably in failing to fully grasp they were already flying near the limit of what might be considered an acceptable crab angle (for normal operating conditions).

    When the pilot saw the the aircraft starting to drift again, with that substantial crab already in place, she should have thrown in the towel and initiated a go-around (and probably asked for another runway).

    Airliners have such long wingspans, you’d think the airlines would have rules in place for limiting crab angles (and so corresponding bank angle) near the ground.

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