Cockpit Confidential: How Difficult Was That Landing in Poland?

Photo: Pylon757

In the past, we’ve brought you the airline expertise of Captain Steve. Now, in a new feature we’re calling “Cockpit Confidential,” commercial airline pilot Patrick Smith writes about the hidden side of the airline industry. First up, Smith takes you behind the scenes of the recent belly-landing of a Polish Airlines 767, looking at what the media got wrong and what was likely going on inside the cockpit as the crew scrambled to deal with an almost unprecedented situation.    

The following is adapted from two of the author’s articles that appeared recently on the website Salon.  They can be seen in their entirety here and here.

Cockpit Confidential: How Difficult Was that Landing in Poland?
By Patrick Smith

Last week, a LOT Polish Airlines Boeing 767 made a graceful touchdown at the airport in Warsaw. The problem was, the plane had no landing gear. All three of the jet’s gear assemblies failed to deploy, forcing a rarely seen belly landing. The million-dollar question is how in the world did all three landing gear units of a modern commercial airliner fail to come down? I wish I could tell you. I fly 767s for a living, and I’m as mystified as anybody else. The 767 has been in service for nearly thirty years; more than 900 have been built.  Nothing like this has happened before.

The plane has both a normal and alternate gear extension system. The normal system uses hydraulics, the alternate relies mainly on gravity, allowing the huge assemblies to more or less free-fall into place if need be. Even with failure of the center hydraulic system, the alternate extension system ought to have worked. The hydraulic failure also introduced problems with flap, slap, spoiler and stabilizer operations. One of the jet’s three autopilots would have been inoperative, along with a host of smaller complications. None of these things spells catastrophe by any stretch, but there was a lot to oversee and quite a long series of procedures and checklists to take care of, on top of everything else.

And that’s the thing: from the media’s perspective, almost all of the focus has been on the landing — the actual touchdown itself.  From the pilot’s point of view, this was probably the easiest part of the whole endeavor.

Touching down without landing gear isn’t a whole lot different from touching down with landing gear. For this reason — and contrary to what was reported on page one of last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal – pilots do not receive formal, specific training in how to land without landing gear. There’s little technique involved, other than to meet the ground as slowly, smoothly, and with the wings as level possible — not terribly different from how it’s done any other day of the week. There would have been some complications during the approach – for instance, a slightly higher speed due to flap and slat complications – but nothing major. Hands-on talent has a role here, but not a big one.

Approach and landing speeds are themselves determined by weight and aren’t subjective. The jet would have been comparatively light at the time of its arrival, having burned away most of its fuel during the flight from Newark. Further dumping of fuel would have been impossible (despite widespread media reports to the contrary), as only the center tank of the 767 has jettison capability, and it would have been empty by this point. They circled to burn fuel, not to dump it.   

And when the jet finally landed, what we saw unfold is about what I, for one, would have expected. This was substantially more difficult than, say, touching down without a nose gear, as we’ve seen happen a few times in the past. None of the gear was down, and the pilots would not have the opportunity to bleed off speed while balancing on the remaining tires. The likelihood of fire or serious structural damage was higher, as both of the plane’s massive engines would be sliding along the pavement at high speed. Directional control would also be more difficult — probably the most challenging aspect once they were on the runway.

Yet there were no casualties, and I’m not the least bit surprised by that. There was lots of smoke, some sparking and grinding and a burst of flame. But emergency crews had been standing by, and even had a fire erupted it would have been doused within seconds. I almost hate to say it, but landing gear malfunctions tend to be splendidly telegenic, but rarely are they going to end in disaster. I am sure that many of the LOT passengers were saying prayers and scribbling out goodbye messages to loved ones, but the possibility of anybody being killed was minimal.  

We’re reminded of the grotesquely overhyped saga of JetBlue flight 292, an Airbus A320 that touched down in California with a twisted nose gear in 2005. This nonevent, which I wrote about here and here, became a days-long media spectacle.

But wait a minute, you’re thinking. What happened in Warsaw had to be more serious.  It had to be a challenge, and it had to require mettle.  Indeed, it did.  It was a difficult, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime challenge for everybody involved.  Just not in the ways people think… 

“This required great piloting skill,” Chesley Sullenberger told CNN in an interview on Wednesday. And with that, it’s easy to romanticize the pilot’s role here, envisioning the captain, square-jawed and scowling like Charlton Heston in Airport ’75, hands tight on the wheel, deftly guiding his jet to a crash landing to the amazement of everybody. The reality in Warsaw wasn’t quite the reality of Hollywood, or that of most people’s imaginations.

Skill means different things, and in this instance it refers not to the hands-on skill of flying, per se, so much as the skills of coordination, communication and effective management of a crisis.

Pilots aren’t trained in how to land a jet on its belly, strictly speaking, but they are specifically trained to deal with malfunctions, including landing gear and hydraulic malfunctions, and to handle and prepare for emergencies. What was truly different about this landing, and the key to its successful outcome, was the preparation that went into it. 

Apparently the crew was aware of a hydraulics problem nearly from the outset of the flight. Almost right away, there were important decisions to make, beginning with the choice of continuing to Europe or turning back to Newark. The biggest risk would have been further failures or malfunctions requiring a diversion while over the ocean. They needed to have a firm understanding of what, exactly, was wrong with the aircraft and needed to be fully comfortable with the legal and practical aspects of continuing. This would involve, among other things, a careful look at the weather, winds and maintenance options at various diversion airports.

Notice I say “they” and not “the pilot,” as most of the media has been doing. There were at least three pilots in the cockpit who knew that plane inside and out (two is standard, but long-haul flights carry augmented crews). Airline dispatch and maintenance personnel would have been involved in these discussions as well, along with air traffic control.

The aircraft then circled overhead Warsaw providing ample time for the pilots to run their remaining checklists and brief the cabin crew and passengers on what to expect. The flight attendants, whose role in this should not be under-emphasized, would’ve stowed loose items and made sure everyone was as ready as possible for an evacuation on the runway — itself a hazardous operation.

In the end, this wasn’t about a landing. It was about managing and coordinating a difficult situation. It was about preparing for that landing. And all parties involved performed admirably.

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  1. Adam says:

    The big question isn’t the landing. The risky part of the scenario was the decision to head out over big water with a failure of an important system (hydraulics). This appears to have been a huge, and unjustified risk. A much safer option would have been to put the aircraft down back at EWR. Yes, things worked out OK in the end, but there is a decent chance that the landing gear would have extended at least via gravity drop iver EWR.

    On top of that, the information available to the flight crew and maintenance personnel about exactly what was wrong with the aircraft was limited. Maybe it was just a leak or pump failure somewhere. Maybe something blew up at high pressure and damaged a whole bunch of components, and more and more components will fail during the flight, perhaps at very inopportune moments.

    While the crew is being applauded for the landing, no one mentions the fact that the risks they took on were huge, unjustified, and inappropriate. Perhaps familiarity with WAW procedures and staff, language difficulties, bravado, inadequate training, etc., should be examined in more detail.

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    • John B says:

      I disagree.

      Turning around and heading back into the NY/NJ airspace to get to Newark would have been more dangerous.

      Trying to get back and land at an extremely crowded and busy airport like Newark would probably not have had as good a result.

      I believe they also thought that the matter of the landing gear could have been resolved while they travelled to Europe.

      They made the right call.

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      • Adam says:

        The airspace and airport becomes instantly less busy and more accommodating to a heavy aircraft which declares an emergency. They would have had a clear path to a runway of their choice within moments. I know that they *thought* they could resolve the issue enroute. But they didn’t *know* that. If you don’t *know* that you can make it there safely (because your system failures could be evolving), and you are responsible for a couple of hundred lives, you put it down at the nearest airport and you have maintenance look at it. Period.

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      • JimFive says:

        I’m curious about your statement that: “but there is a decent chance that the landing gear would have extended at least via gravity drop iver EWR”

        Where do you get that idea? Whatever prevented the gravity system from working was already in place.

        Additionally, landing in Newark with a full load of fuel in the wings might be more dangerous than landing in Warsaw with mostly empty tanks.

        JimFive

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      • McMac says:

        Also bear in mind all of the redundant systems. Hydraulic failures happen. On P-3′s we have 2-3 pumps per system, and two separate systems. A loss of one does not necessarily mandate a mission abort. That is ultimately the aircraft commander’s call.

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  2. Imad Qureshi says:

    For those who are interested in this topic, on February 4th 1986 a Pakistan Airline Pilot did a belly landing of 747-200 aircraft. Except that there was no problem with landing gear. He forgot to engage the landing gears. Captain, First officer and flight engineer all ignored the warning alarms as plane approached lower altitudes without its landing gear. Enjoy.

    http://www.historyofpia.com/acciphoto.htm

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  3. James says:

    Yes, gear-up landings are not all that difficult, as a good number of pilots have done them without meaning to. (I never have, but that probably has more to do with my Cherokee’s fixed gear than superior piloting skills :-))

    I’m a little puzzled by the “all three failed to come down” comment. It would seem to be more desirable to have all three up, than only one or two. With one main down, I would think the opposite wing would touch first, probably causing the plane to do high-speed cartwheels down the runway.

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  4. Nosybear says:

    Thanks for another excellent take-down of the entertainment industry we call news media. About the most dangerous thing I can think of aside from giving the Press a number is to give them facts.

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  5. Neil (SM) says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • MW says:

      Except that (extending your analogy) he’s a veteran EMT paramedic.

      There was an article in which he listed a whole bunch of pilots who he DID consider to be heroes. Most of the incidents were ones you’d never have heard of. I’d link to this article, but alas I’m having troubles finding it. I’m pretty sure that the crew of UA232 would qualify – they were able to bring a DC-10 airliner with *no* hydraulics to an airport (Sioux City) and crash it softly enough that 185 survived of 296 on board.

      Changing the topic: Why is the photo accompanying this article not of a 767? Even if copyright prevented you from using a photo of the plane in question, it can’t be hard to find a public domain or suitable creative commons photo of a 767.

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    • McMac says:

      Neil, what you are missing in this article is that he is trying to address the issue of sensationalism that goes into any aircraft related reporting. He isn’t saying they performed a simple task, it is that the task they performed was not the sensational part of the story. I’m a Naval Aircrewman by trade, not a pilot but an enlisted crew member.

      Regardless of rank or crew position, the whole crew partakes in Crew Resource Management (CRM), it is the same type of training commercial airline crews and NASA astronauts go through. It is a methodology for conducting the mission, acting in emergencies, and being as safe as possible. I have been on crews that have had five equipment fires, one bird strike, about 15 landings with one or two of our engines shut down, three medical emergencies, one near mid-air with a KC-130, two airspace violations, and a whole host of minor stuff like problems with critical mission equipment.

      None of these incidents were resolved successfully without us considering CRM, and the two that stand out, (the KC-130 and air space violations) happened either due to a lack of Situational Awareness or someone’s failure to Communicate something they noticed (lack of Assertiveness). Key to the whole process is communication.

      The amazing thing wasn’t the landing. It was difficult, but no more difficult than everything else that happens in that cockpit. The amazing thing were the actions and checklists they had to go through before they got to that part. Keeping ~200 passengers content during the process must have increased the difficulty exponentially and I don’t envy that part. But I’ll definitely thank the ‘bus driver’ the next time I get off of my next commercial flight. And I hope more people do, because flying that plane is incredibly more challenging than driving a bus.

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  6. Cory says:

    A few years ago, I was flying to Chicago-Midway. As we were approaching, they notified us that the indicator lights were saying that one of the wheels would not go down. They thought it may be an indicator light problem and that the wheel was indeed down, but neither they nor the tower could tell for sure. We ended up being rerouted to O’Hare for an emergency landing.

    Thankfully, I was seated next to a commercial pilot who flew similar planes. He told me that there really wasn’t anything to worry about and that he had landed a plane with just 2 of 3 wheels down. He said the trick was to just keep the wing up as long as you could. Eventually the plane would lose lift and just tip onto the engine.

    Turned out that the gear was in place and everything was fine. But it was the smoothest landing I’ve ever had – particularly at O’Hare.

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  7. Larry Sheldon says:

    It is my understanding that in addition to the discussions among the pilots, the airplane itself would have been in lengthy conversations with Mother on the ground.

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  8. dave anderson says:

    Was plane repaired? Or was it scrapped?

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