Ask the pilot

Why JetBlue's heroic LAX landing was anything but.

Published September 30, 2005 7:30PM (EDT)

"What is it that commercial flying needs and misses more than anything?" I pondered in this space only a week ago. "The answer, I believe, is a hero."

With that, as if on cue, came the strange odyssey of JetBlue flight 292, an Airbus A320 bound from Burbank, Calif., to New York's JFK International.

For better or worse, almost everybody in America knows what I'm talking about: Moments after liftoff on Sept. 21, cockpit indications revealed flight 292's forward landing gear had not properly retracted. A low-level fly-by of the control tower at Long Beach Municipal Airport confirmed that the front tire assembly was cocked at 90 degrees. Unable to realign the twisted gear, the crew would be forced to make an emergency landing with the tires stuck sideways.

The pilots and JetBlue's dispatch team agreed to a diversion to Los Angeles, primarily to take advantage of LAX's long runways. But first came the matter of the plane's gross weight, which was several thousand pounds above its maximum allowable heft for touchdown. As reviewed here in the past, a jetliner's takeoff weight routinely exceeds its landing limit, necessitating the extra kerosene to be burned off or jettisoned. (Only in the most urgent situations will a crew opt for an overweight touchdown, which puts a high level of stress on the gear and other components.) The A320, like other small, limited-capacity jetliners, does not have fuel-dump capability. This meant about three hours of leisure flying over the Pacific until the poundage was down to the appropriate amount.

Those three hours, of course, are what allowed this relative nonevent to be catapulted into full-blown network spectacle. The California news outlets, out and about in search of the usual car chases and traffic accidents, had only to tip their cameras upward to catch the hapless Airbus as it circled. On board, 146 souls readied for what some people hoped might be, and were teased into believing could be, a devastating crash.

"There was a big buildup that I'm sure turned into a letdown for the talking heads," said Doug [last name withheld by request], an Airbus A320 pilot for a major airline. You'd better believe the producers at CNN, Fox and MSNBC were, on some level, wishing for a catastrophe."

When flight 292 finally emerged out of the haze and commenced its approach, those of us who knew better saw exactly what we expected to see: the plane touching down smoothly on its main tires; the nose gently falling as speed bled away until the wayward forward gear, unable to defy gravity any longer, scraped sideways into the pavement, decelerating the jet in a rooster tail of sparks and smoke. Once it came to a stop, the doors were opened and crew and passengers were escorted uneventfully away. There were no injuries.

As if the live-action saga hadn't been enough, the media spent the next three days showing slow-motion replays, interviewing passengers, and generally giving JetBlue, the 5-year-old New York-based discount carrier, all the free advertising it could possibly hope for.

Choking on the hype and melodrama, I couldn't help but remember a similar, which is to say completely different, incident more than 16 years ago. In August, 1989, a Boeing 727 operated by Trump Shuttle (formerly the famous Eastern Shuttle; today the US Airways Shuttle), faced a similar predicament. As the tri-jet prepared for arrival at Boston's Logan International Airport, its nose gear refused to deploy. The tires weren't merely askew, they refused to come down at all. When several G-force maneuvers failed to pull the unit into place, the crew came in for a rare gear-up landing. I remember the footage quite vividly: the plane touching down smoothly on its main tires; the nose gently falling as speed bled away until scraping into the pavement, decelerating the jet in a rooster tail of sparks and smoke. Once it came to a stop, the doors were opened and crew and passengers were escorted uneventfully away. There were no injuries.

The Trump emergency made the papers and networks for one short news cycle and was quickly forgotten. The volume of exposure seemed about right: the pictures were dramatic and the story unusual, but nobody was hurt and, frankly, nobody was expected to be hurt. JetBlue's back-to-the-future sequel had no reason to linger in the headlines, but as we know things are different today. This isn't 1989, when the mainstream media was stuck with a couple of things it no longer has: comparatively archaic channels of distribution, and a dose of self-respect.

As the Airbus circled, grown men in the passenger cabin reportedly began weeping. Others scribbled goodbye notes to loved ones. Words like "terrifying" and "harrowing" would later show up in interviews with those who "survived." So, I've already been asked, with the full expectation that I'd use this column to mock the overreactions of frightened passengers, what would Patrick Smith have done, sitting back there for three hours while the plane prepared for some unknown fate?

Assuming I knew the nature of the problem in any detail, I'd have sat there and read a magazine, dismayed at having to reschedule whatever appointment I'd been headed for in New York. Perhaps that sounds arrogant and cocky, and perhaps it is, but surely a tarmac strewn with bodies was not to be forthcoming. As to why certain people couldn't maintain better composure, JetBlue's seatback TV screens deserve much of the blame, beaming in reckless live reportage from several large networks. What the passengers needed was an accurate dissertation from the crew on exactly what was happening, and what was likely to happen at LAX. Whether they got one, and to what extent it was drowned out by overzealous news coverage, I can't say, but as time went by the airline faced an interesting quandary: leave the TVs running, and sensational commentary was liable to scare the shit out of everyone on the plane; pull the plug, and people would quickly suspect the situation was more dire than the crew was letting on. The whole thing set up a weird voyeuristic triangle: The passengers believed they were watching themselves, when actually they were watching the rest of us watch them.

The screens were finally shut down about 20 minutes before landing. "The philosophy of JetBlue management is honesty," said Dave [last name withheld], an A320 pilot for the airline. "We try to treat customers respectfully as adults. Personally, I would have left the TVs on. Most JetBlue pilots I've talked with would have too."

(A curious and morbid sidebar: In 1979, in the worst-ever air crash on U.S. soil, an American Airlines DC-10 went down after liftoff from Chicago O'Hare, killing 273 people. A cracked pylon had allowed an engine to detach and hit the left wing, resulting in heavy damage. The crew, not fully realizing what had happened, then lost control. At the time, American's DC-10s were outfitted with a closed-circuit camera that projected a pilot's-eye view of the cockpit onto the cabin movie screens. It is thus likely that most of flight 191's occupants looked on in horror as the pilots wrestled with the doomed jetliner as it rolled 90 degrees and slammed into the ground in a gigantic fireball. Shortly afterward, American discontinued its live cockpit camera feed.)

Not that a small chance of danger didn't exist for those aboard JetBlue 292. There were three worst-case scenarios to mull over:

First would be a situation where, upon impact, the nose gear rotates partway into position, locking or sticking at an acute angle. With the tires deflected at, say, 45 degrees instead of the full perpendicular, the aircraft could be yanked from the runway. Option 2 involves a collapsed or sheared strut -- the force of the landing causing the entire fixture to bend backward, the nose then dropping hard onto the surface. And lastly, in combination with either of the first two items, is the slight possibility that as the wheel rims grind into the runway, the inevitable shower of hot sparks (aircraft wheels are often manufactured of magnesium, which burns ferociously) might bring on a fuel-tank explosion or ignite some portion of the plane's structure.

None of those was bound to happen -- indeed, none did happen -- and with rescue vehicles swarming around the aircraft from the moment it reached the ground, even a sudden fire would have been quickly doused.

As was widely reported in the days afterward, flight 292's problem was one of at least seven similar events involving the Airbus A320 -- one of the world's most popular commercial planes (more than 2,000 of the A320 family are in service). This raised some eyebrows, and it's likely the big networks are rehearsing for the next drama. But while seven copycat failures is not a statistic to be proud of, neither is this particular problem an especially dangerous or scandalous one. Airbus Industrie doesn't like it; airlines don't like it; insurance companies don't like it, but in the hierarchy of potential killers, it barely registers.

"We had this same nose-gear crap happen a couple of years ago on a Rochester-to-JFK flight," scoffs Dave. "With the same results -- minus the ridiculous media saturation. The incident is now used by JetBlue as part of a training video."

Precisely what the pilots of flight 292 knew of their malfunction is hard to say. The tires were sideways, everyone could see, but how did they get that way? And would they stay that way? Was the strut securely latched in the full-down position? Had anything else gone awry? Here, the high-tech magic of the A320 may have played a role in letting the pilots and emergency personnel know what to expect. From the ground, JetBlue's maintenance staff has the ability to "talk" to the plane's computers, getting detailed information on the various onboard systems.

"The A320 is a very smart airplane," Dave adds. "There are hundreds of sensors and a multitude of computers. While the first indication of trouble may have been a simple red light on the flight deck, the computers may have known more -- certain things that even the pilots weren't aware of. We sometimes get to the gate and a mechanic is there waiting, ready to change some component we didn't know existed. "Oh, your plane e-mailed us a few hours back to tell us the #2 ABCD failed one of its built-in tests."

The New York Post called JetBlue captain Scott Burke, who guided flight 292 to its all-too-telegenic landing at LAX, "America's newest hero." The Daily News led with "Nerves of Steel," and went on to detail Burke's "heroic flying feat," complete with a photograph of the 46-year-old airman sitting with his wife and dog. Nobody faults Burke for talking to a reporter or accepting accolades, and he's been gracious and self-effacing throughout, but the H-word, already so brutally overused in this country, is exceptionally nauseating here.

At least one network managed to get some brief live commentary from none other than Al Haynes, the retired captain of United Airlines flight 232 fame. In 1989, en route from Denver to Chicago, a disintegrating center engine caused the total loss of flight controls aboard Haynes' DC-10. Using only engine thrust to maintain direction, he and his crew valiantly guided their crippled widebody to an emergency landing at Sioux City, Iowa. More than a hundred passengers were killed after the plane cartwheeled down the runway and broke apart. Haynes tried his best to make the point clear, but he ought to have been more forceful: to imply that landing a plane with a tweaked pair of tires even remotely compares to the challenge he faced on the DC-10, is disgraceful and insulting to all parties.

Not to demean the crew's efforts, but what did Scott Burke and his first officer do? They were, presumably, responsible for numerous intangibles: coordination of the emergency with the airline's headquarters; proper use of checklists and oversight of onboard systems; careful planning should any unexpected complications arise on touchdown. But otherwise, essentially they performed a routine landing. A bit more finesse at letting the nose down, maybe, is about the extent of it.

"Heroic flying feat?" Doubtless Burke has had some good chuckles at that one.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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