This is Warsaw, not Hollywood

The LOT Polish Airlines landing was difficult, just not in the way people think

Topics: Ask the Pilot,

This is Warsaw, not Hollywood Charlton Heston in "Airport 1975" (Credit: disastermovieworld.com)

A couple of things in follow-up to Tuesday’s LOT Polish Airlines no-wheels landing in Warsaw on Tuesday.

A story on Page One of the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday spoke of pilots being specifically trained for belly landings. I fly Boeing 767s — the identical model involved in Tuesday’s mishap in Warsaw. Since 1990 I have worked for five different airlines large and small. I have never once received any sort of specific, formal training for landing without landing gear.

Not only is the prospect of a belly landing extraordinarily unlikely, but the landing itself would be all but routine. As I wrote the other day, there’s no technique to this other than to touch down as slowly and smoothly and with the wings as level as possible — not much different from a normal landing. Hands-on talents have a role here, but not a big one.

“This required great piloting skill,” said Chesley Sullenberger in a CNN interview. What Sully is doing isn’t something I should argue with: He’s sticking up for pilots. He’s doing his bit to encourage respect for the profession. And good for him. But what does he really mean by this?

What pilots are specifically trained to do, of course, is to deal with assorted malfunctions, including landing gear malfunctions, and to manage and prepare for emergencies.

What was truly different about this landing was the preparation that went into it. The coordination between cockpit and cabin crew; the systems troubleshooting and running of different checklists; communicating with air traffic control and company personnel, etc. “Crew resource management,” as it’s called, is pivotal in an event like this. And there is plenty to manage.

For example: Apparently they were aware of a hydraulics problem 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. Crews don’t take these matters lightly and will almost always err on the side of caution. The big 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. Airline dispatch and maintenance personnel would have been involved in these discussions as well, along with air traffic control. Not to mention the flight attendants, whose job it was to ready the cabin and passengers for an evacuation on the runway — itself a hazardous operation.

It’s easy to romanticize the pilot’s role here, envisioning the captain, square-jawed and scowling like Charlton Heston in “Airport 1975,” 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. Sure, it was plenty difficult; perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime challenge for everybody involved. Just not in the ways people think.

Now, the million-dollar question remains: Why didn’t the landing gear come down? Even with the failure of the center hydraulic system, as is being reported, the alternate extension system ought to have worked. This, to me, is the most impressive and noteworthy aspect of the whole incident. The hydraulic failure also introduced problems with flap and slat extension, spoiler and stabilizer trim operation, and other issues. One of the plane’s three autopilots would have been inoperative. Complications with the flaps and slats entailed a slightly faster approach than normal for their weight, and a slightly different angle coming across the threshold.

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.

You can call the Polish pilots heroes if you want, but understand what the real difficulties were. This wasn’t about a landing. It was about managing and coordinating a difficult situation. It was about preparing for that landing.

For more on pilot heroics, see here.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Api Étoile

    Like little stars.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Calville Blanc

    World's best pie apple. Essential for Tarte Tatin. Has five prominent ribs.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Chenango Strawberry

    So pretty. So early. So ephemeral. Tastes like strawberry candy (slightly).

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Chestnut Crab

    My personal fave. Ultra-crisp. Graham cracker flavor. Should be famous. Isn't.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    D'Arcy Spice

    High flavored with notes of blood orange and allspice. Very rare.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Esopus Spitzenberg

    Jefferson's favorite. The best all-purpose American apple.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Granite Beauty

    New Hampshire's native son has a grizzled appearance and a strangely addictive curry flavor. Very, very rare.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Hewes Crab

    Makes the best hard cider in America. Soon to be famous.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Hidden Rose

    Freak seedling found in an Oregon field in the '60s has pink flesh and a fragrant strawberry snap. Makes a killer rose cider.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Knobbed Russet

    Freak city.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Newtown Pippin

    Ben Franklin's favorite. Queen Victoria's favorite. Only apple native to NYC.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Pitmaston Pineapple

    Really does taste like pineapple.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>