Superstorm Dennis created dangerous aircraft operations in Europe with extremely strong winds. An Eitihad A380 was landing at London Heathrow Airport with wind gusts to 50 knots. Here is the video:
The pilots were battling severe crosswinds upon landing. Fortunately, nothing happened to either the aircraft for passengers. It could have easily gone the other way. For the passengers, it was a wild, if not scary experience that could create panic in the cabin.
Prior To Descent
Before the captain begins the descent phase of flight, he must do some planning and calculations:
- Check the weather at the destination airport,
- Check the weather at the alternate airport, in this case, it would have been Manchester,
- For crosswinds, consult the quick reference handbook (QRH) for maximum crosswind speed.
Every aircraft has a manufacturer defined set of takeoff and landing parameters including crosswind component and total wind component. In doing some checking, it looks like the A380 is rated at a maximum crosswind component of 40 knots. The winds were gusting up to 50 knots.
There are many other considerations by the flight crew during descent, approach and landing but these three factors into what happened to this flight.
Like the ocean crustaceans who can walk sideways, aircraft are subject to the same sideways movement when they are trying to fly forward. This is the impact of crosswinds on aircraft trying to fly in a straight line. Here is a video from my friend Petter at Mentour Pilot where he explains crosswind landings:
As you can see in the Eitihad A380 video, this aircraft was experiencing intense crabbing prior to touchdown.
Prior To Touchdown
During the course of landing, there will be a final point to commit to land. In an Airbus A380, the radio altimeter will during final approach call out:
200 (feet), continue?
The pilot flying will respond with “continue”, committing to landing on this approach.
The aircraft should touchdown in the first third of the runway to ensure enough stopping distance to avoid runway overrun. Two weeks ago, a Pegasus Airlines B737-800 overran the runway because the aircraft landed too high and to fast to stop before the end of the runway. The landing involved a tailwind that exceeded the maximum tailwind component for this aircraft plus it was landing on a wet runway. The aircraft overran the end of the runway, crashed into three sections and killed three passengers.
Land, Go Around Or Alternative Airport
Mainline airline captains get paid very well primarily to make good decisions. In this Etihad flight, there were no injuries or structural damage to the aircraft. This aircraft appears to be at the maximum crosswind landing but what if it got hit by a gust of wind. The outcome could have been completely different. I can’t tell from the video how much runway the aircraft flew over prior to touchdown.
This landing may have come very close to executing a go-around. A go-around can be executed below the commitment altitude of 200 feet up to actual touchdown as long as the thrust reversers have not been deployed. Once the trust reversers are deployed, you are committed to landing.
What about an alternative airport. This might have been the safest choice depending on the weather in Manchester. I don’t have the weather for Manchester at that time but that would have been checked prior to descent.
What Etihad Management Says
Etihad Airlines was not very happy about this landing. This landing as good as pilot skill could make it could have easily become a disaster. Here is what the Etihad training department had to say about this landing:
The landing was impressive that require excellent piloting skills to pull it off. I agree with Etihad that this landing wouldn’t qualify as “best practices”. There could have been a higher speed crosswind gust that could have turned this landing into a disaster. I fly a Cessna 182 and we have a crosswind maximum of 10 knots and a maximum total wind component of 15 knots. If there is any doubt that I can make a safe landing, I will be going to plan B.