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Turns out the plane isn't crashing...
August 27, 2010 11:06 AM   Subscribe

Crew on a British Airways flight from London to Hong Kong accidentally trigger a message to the cabin that "This is an emergency. We may shortly need to make an emergency landing on water." The pilot then had to get on the PA and calm everyone's nerves. This probably caused even more panic than the famous message on BA Flight 9 in 1982, when the caption announced "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress."
posted by kaszeta (51 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
"... in the meantime, enjoy the soothing sounds of Burt Bacharach."
posted by Auden at 11:08 AM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Who wants to ride the slide?"
posted by blue_beetle at 11:17 AM on August 27, 2010


"HAS ANYONE ON THIS FLIGHT SEEN LOST? IF SO, WE HAVE GOT A FABULOUS SURPRISE FOR YOU!"
posted by zarq at 11:19 AM on August 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I was on a flight like that once. Just as we were ready to touch down, the pilot gunned the engines (a 'missed approach') and we shot back up into the sky. Reason? A light had come on in the cockpit that had them unsure of whether or not one of the landing gear had deployed correctly. We flew a pattern for awhile so they could run through the checklist, and ended up having to do a low and slow flyby of the tower so that the folks on the ground could visually confirm that the gear was down. It was, and we landed hard and faster after that.

But still. I imagine the next steps were to start rolling the foam trucks.

True story: about a month later, I was coming into Memphis when the pilot came on to tell us that the anti-lock brakes may not be working. Not to worry - we'd land fine, but may need a bit of extra space to slow down via the reverse thrusters. The emergency equipment lined up at the end of the runway? Just a precaution. Pay no mind. We crossed the fenceline and the side of the runway looked like Close Encouters.

Business travel is awesome.
posted by jquinby at 11:19 AM on August 27, 2010 [12 favorites]


Sitting in the window seat above the massive wing of a 747 is pretty awesome during landings.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:25 AM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


jquinby: they probably rolled the foam trucks anyway! It's my understanding that any time that there is an unscheduled landing, the fire crew is sent out. Once when flying from SJC-STL, the plane wouldn't pressurize and we had to land at SFO. The fire trucks were ready for us, lining the taxiway, even though it was a pretty minor problem.
posted by zsazsa at 11:45 AM on August 27, 2010


I was on a British Airways flight from Rome to NY. Takeoff was normal, except that my ears kept popping, even after we were well into the air. After a short while, the captain came on the intercom and said that there was a "slight problem with cabin pressurization." He said that it wasn't dangerous - and admittedly, the masks hadn't dropped out of the ceiling or anything - but that he wasn't comfortable travelling across the Atlantic without having it checked out first. So he put in to land in Ireland.

While I assumed we'd land in Dublin or Belfast, we ended up landing in Galway, which is apparently a town (the entire time we were there, it was too foggy to see beyond a couple of hundred yards.) The landing was hard: we hit the ground hard and then he braked hard. This wasn't reassuring, but it got doubly worrisome when we saw several fire trucks racing out to meet us.

Despite the fire trucks, the plane taxied to a gate, and we were all shepherded off the plane. Before letting us disembark, the pilot told us that we were to stay near the gate, as they weren't sure how long it was going to take. The airport was small, with not much to do, and nothing to see. So most of us just hung around watching the plane.

I noticed that seven of the eight main tires on the plane were flat. I assumed it was from the hard landing, but when I asked a flight attendant (who, like the passengers, had nothing to do and nowhere to go) she explained that the tires do that when the brakes get too hot. When the brakes are applied too hard, they heat up, which melts a fuse which lets the air out of the tires, thus hastening the deceleration of the plane. The flight attendant confided that we had to land on a runway that was too short for a plane as big as ours, so the pilot had to brake like hell to get us to stop before we reached the end of the runway. Because of this, we had to have seven tires replaced. The airport in question didn't have seven spare tires, so they had to have them flown in. There was no way of knowing how long this would take, so all the passengers had to remain nearby.

So I did the only sensible thing I could: I got drunk.

14 hours later, the plane had new tires, whatever was wrong with the pressurization was fixed, and we were on our way.

How we managed to get off of the ground on a runway that was too short doesn't make any sense to me. Part of me thinks the flight attendant was confused about the whole thing, or maybe just pulling my leg. Either way, my first trip to Ireland consisted of an airport terminal, bar, and bathroom.

The rest of the flight home was uneventful.
posted by nushustu at 11:45 AM on August 27, 2010 [23 favorites]


For me, the revelation here is that they have prerecorded emergency messages. I had no idea.

It does make me wonder what some of the other ones are, and how committed the airlines are to keeping the passengers truly informed of what's happening;

"This is an emergency. We may shortly need to make an emergency landing on water." sure, but what about "This is an emergency. The pilot and co-pilot have been doing shots of hard liquor and are now betting each other that they can do the better barrel roll. Please remain in your seats."

Or the classic "This is an emergency. There appears to be an alien space-craft attempting to capture this aircraft, probably by creatures of unspeakable evil with the intent to do horrific experiments on the human passengers. As I am a machine recording, and therefor probably safe, I'm surrendering the plane to them in hopes of amnesty. You may be dissected and probed. Hopefully it will happen in that order. I hope you've enjoyed your flight, truncated though it may be."
posted by quin at 11:47 AM on August 27, 2010 [8 favorites]


my first trip to Ireland consisted of an airport terminal, bar, and bathroom.

I'm sure you're not the first to have this touristic experience.
posted by mannequito at 11:50 AM on August 27, 2010 [11 favorites]


The flight attendant in nushustu's story was correct. The runway at Galway is 4,230 ft, which is uncomfortably short for most transatlantic aircraft. The fire trucks were there in case the hot brakes caused a fire. This is a fairly normal procedure.
posted by kiltedtaco at 11:54 AM on August 27, 2010


The fire trucks were there in case the hot brakes caused a fire. This is a fairly normal procedure.

Yeah, I forgot to mention that the flight attendant mentioned that. Which was a comfort, albeit a small one.
posted by nushustu at 11:55 AM on August 27, 2010


What's the deal with airline food?
posted by punkfloyd at 11:56 AM on August 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


For instance, just yesterday a JetBlue plane experienced a brake fire on landing. (I should say though, if you're concerned about flying, don't visit the link I gave. But if you enjoy every detail of flying, the avherald is a great source of, well, non-normal procedures.)
posted by kiltedtaco at 12:01 PM on August 27, 2010


Yeah, color me surprised that there are prerecorded emergency messages. I suppose it makes sense, though - if you're very busy trying to not get everyone killed, pushing a button to inform the cabin is a lot easier than trying to talk to them AND land safely.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:02 PM on August 27, 2010


Not to mention, the last thing panicked passengers need to hear is an edge of anxiety in the pilot's voice. Far better to have a recording of a calm emergency announcement.
posted by Westringia F. at 12:13 PM on August 27, 2010


I well remember my second-ever flight to England back in the 1980s. I'd flown a fair amount across the US, so I was used to the standard bland, uninformative pilot announcements when turbulence or severe weather struck ("This is your captain, we have some bumpy weather coming up, please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts."). But I was not prepared for the British Airways pilot's blithe announcement of impending extreme stormy weather... he hated to inconvenience us but he'd be ever so pleased if we all took our seats and buckled ourselves in. I'll always remember his "encouraging" parting words (spoken in a cheerful, veddy proper British accent): "Please take a moment to review the safety card in the seat pocket in front of you so that if we should be unfortunate enough to dip into the drink, you'll be none the worse for the dunking." Looking back, I suppose he was being lighthearted in order to reassure the passengers, but at the time I remember being frustrated with the imperturbability of the British, thinking that the pilot was just placating us until we plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:21 PM on August 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


Seems to me you could count on conditioned reflexes to put the passengers in a more receptive state of mind by hiring movie trailer narrators to record these messages.
On a plane where one carefully vetted checklist of procedures is all that stands between a hundred and twenty passengers and a watery grave, one crew has the gumption to see you through this terrible, turbulent time.
--And ah, you think, settling back. Just like a movie. Here's the mask! Sweet.
posted by kipmanley at 12:21 PM on August 27, 2010 [12 favorites]


I had one of those "missed approach" scares, too. Coming into Newark (yeah, I know) we were just about to touch down when we suddenly pitched up and went full throttle. After a few twists and turns to avoid other airport traffic the pilot came on and announced that there was a plane sitting on the same runway we had been cleared to land on.
This all came at the end of a flight that had already made an unscheduled landing at an upstate New York Air Force base after nearly running out of fuel from being stuck in a holding pattern for too long.
posted by rocket88 at 12:23 PM on August 27, 2010


On a flight from L.A. to Seattle, there were winter, Arctic storms in the Seattle area with buffeting winds, rain and snow.

The pilot gets on the P.A., explains the situation and finishes his spiel with, "So, strap in, hold on and try to enjoy the roller-coaster."

DUDE.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:28 PM on August 27, 2010


"Thank heaven I wore my brown pants today!"
posted by rusty at 12:31 PM on August 27, 2010


How we managed to get off of the ground on a runway that was too short doesn't make any sense to me. Part of me thinks the flight attendant was confused about the whole thing, or maybe just pulling my leg.

You don't need as much runway to take off as you do to land -- See, for example: the Doolittle Raid.
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:33 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


How we managed to get off of the ground on a runway that was too short doesn't make any sense to me.

There's "too short to land" and "too short to take off." They're not the same thing. Generally, you don't need nearly as much room to take off as you do to land. Most of the time, a takeoff is deliberately designed to reduce noise and fuel consumption.

If they want to put the pedal to the metal, they can.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:33 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


"grab someone and start fucking, people".
posted by modernnomad at 12:41 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was on a British Airways flight from Rome to NY. . . . . After a short while, the captain came on the intercom and said that there was a "slight problem with cabin pressurization." . . . The landing was hard: we hit the ground hard and then he braked hard. This wasn't reassuring, but it got doubly worrisome when we saw several fire trucks racing out to meet us. . . . I noticed that seven of the eight main tires on the plane were flat. . . . we had to have seven tires replaced. The airport in question didn't have seven spare tires, so they had to have them flown in.

Combining this story with the two BA incidents in the post, I'm once again deeply amused by the British sense of humor.
posted by bearwife at 12:45 PM on August 27, 2010


Generally, you don't need nearly as much room to take off as you do to land.

This is not true. In general, take-off takes more runway length than landing.

Boeing 747-400: T-O field length is between 9,550 ft and 10,550 ft, landing length is between 6,250 ft and 7,150 ft. (From Jane's All the World's Aircraft)

I've heard of at least one aircraft (wish I could find the source right now) that was being flown to a site to become a museum piece; the runway would normally have been too short for the plane to land, but because it was never going to leave again it was not a problem.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:48 PM on August 27, 2010


I was on flight to JFK to meet up with some pretty awesome doods, friends and family. Had the day off, and the weather was gorgeous. Did my typical pre-flight routine of taking a couple motrin and a tab of Benadryl-- no headaches, minimize motion sickness, and snooze through the flight.

Desk attendant informed us that there'd be a 20-minute delay for mechanical issues. We boarded, and I promptly went to sleep. Woke up a couple of hours later, and looked out the window. First thought: "hey, this looks just like my town!" Second thought: "holy crap, that's a lot of rain!" I was still a little groggy, and the flight attendant was going down the aisle offering snacks and beverages. I asked for a bag of peanuts and a bag of pretzels, as well as some tomato juice.

She said that she could only give one of the two, as she had to make sure there were enough snacks for everyone. Fine. No sweat. Talked to the fellow next to me, who informed me that the plane was grounded because there was a tornado watch. Awesome! Tornados!

Then lots of thunder and lightning. A small tower which was probably a lightning rod got hit a couple times a minute. I saw another plane far off get hit by lightning. There was a big flash, and people started flipping out. Captain makes an announcement saying that we shouldn't worry: the planes are designed to withstand lightning strikes in air and on the ground, and that we're safe.

By this point, people were getting irate. One lady started yelling about how it was ridiculous that the airline would keep us locked in the plane. A few others murmured their agreement. The folks around me, though, were pretty cool about the whole situation. I mean: what else could we do? What did that lady want? To have the plane door open, fall 30 feet or however far to the ground, and walk back to the terminal in torrential rain, wind, lightning, and possible tornados? Ludicrous!

So we made small talk. It was actually pretty pleasant, and the small cadre of passengers around me settled on the fact that there was nothing we could do. The flight attendant came by again, and this time loaded us up with pretzels and peanuts. I guess she liked us.


There's apparently a rule where airlines can't keep passengers in the plane for more than three hours. Three hours was approaching. Captain comes on board and says that we'll be heading back to the gate to de-plane. More people start flipping out: people with connecting flights to all over the world, people who felt entitled enough to deserve attempted takeoff in crazy weather, and hungry people who were wondering where all the snacks went.

Right. Ok. We motor back to the gate. It's nearing three hours. We're told that we cannot de-plane, because the ramp they use to get us off the plane can't be used in inclement weather. More flipping out. The group around me are laughing our assess off at how preposterous the situation was. We munched on our snacks quietly. I think the other passengers were onto us.

I didn't know this, but the plane has a ton of vents on the floor. These vents were spewing out condensation, because it was so humid outside. I knew this to be condensation. I said, as a joke, pretty quietly: "My god. They're gassing us."

Hoo boy. This must've spread like wildfire, because a bunch of people in front of me looked back to see who said that. Then they must've looked down and saw the condensation. Then they flipped out. Not ten seconds after I had uttered the phrase, a very stern captain came back on the intercom and said: "Ladies and gentlemen, what you're seeing coming out of the vents is CON. DEN. SATION. It is NOT smoke. It is NOT gas."


At any rate, weather cleared up enough to get the ramp to the plane. Some people de-planed. We were at first given the option of taking any seat we wanted, but then were told that everyone had to de-plane for a mandatory security sweep. I think everyone got back on afterwards as the plan seemed as full as it was before we all got off. We took off without incident, and the pilot must've kicked in the warp drive as we got to our destination in half the time expected.

Moral of the story: science will keep you calm. Also, I'm an asshole.
posted by herrdoktor at 12:50 PM on August 27, 2010 [41 favorites]


Flying from Beijing to Shanghai many years ago in a tiny plane, I looked up and saw three lights:
No Smoking
Fasten Your Seat Belt
Life Vest Under Your Seat

The plane we rode back must have been newer, because it only had the first two lights. No wonder my Chinese friends actually paid attention to the model number of the air plane printed on their tickets.
posted by gemmy at 1:08 PM on August 27, 2010


Captain makes an announcement saying that we shouldn't worry: the planes are designed to withstand lightning strikes in air and on the ground, and that we're safe.

One of the "high points" of an ill-fated conference trip, many years ago, was the plane being hit by lighting en route. Bolt went right through one window and out the other, much to the understandable distress of the people in the affected seats.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:12 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've heard of at least one aircraft (wish I could find the source right now) that was being flown to a site to become a museum piece; the runway would normally have been too short for the plane to land, but because it was never going to leave again it was not a problem.

Perhaps the 727 at Meigs for the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.
posted by exogenous at 1:27 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Obligatory video.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:31 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is not true. In general, take-off takes more runway length than landing.

We'll have to agree to disagree, because there's so many factors at work -- weight, fuel consumption, wind. The Jane's link you cite for that aircraft is likely just the general, standard smooth takeoff procedure.

Another example is the noise abatement takeoff, aka the John Wayne Airport rocket ride.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:37 PM on August 27, 2010


I'm a pretty jittery flyer, so when my plane was struck by lightning (a prop from La Guardia to Nantucket) I nearly shit myself. When it hit, the props sounded like they just died. After a second or two, I heard them spin back up to normal speed and all was well.

It's probably a pretty minor event for seasoned flyers, but I'm not sure I'll fly in a prop again.
posted by MustardTent at 1:45 PM on August 27, 2010


You are comparing an accidentally released message, to a plane that lost all four engines, deployed O2 masks, was sparking from static electricity and had to make a no-powered pitch into the mountains, before turning and heading for the ocean in terms of panic on board? Really?
posted by joelf at 1:46 PM on August 27, 2010


"Miss... are you telling us everything?
posted by vectr at 1:52 PM on August 27, 2010


Boeing 747-400: T-O field length is between 9,550 ft and 10,550 ft, landing length is between 6,250 ft and 7,150 ft. (From Jane's All the World's Aircraft)

747s can take off from much shorter runways. For example, Air Force One landed and took off from the 6501ft runway at Columbia Regional Airport. Might not have been full of fuel, though.
posted by zsazsa at 1:57 PM on August 27, 2010


Yeah, color me surprised that there are prerecorded emergency messages. I suppose it makes sense, though - if you're very busy trying to not get everyone killed, pushing a button to inform the cabin is a lot easier than trying to talk to them AND land safely.

It's presumably also to avoid the possibility that you hear the copilot praying or the pilot soiling himself during the announcement, which could detract from the requisite air of calm professionalism.
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 2:47 PM on August 27, 2010


I really hope Patrick Smith discusses this; I'd be interested to know if the pre-recorded announcement is a common thing or not.

I'm a very nervous flyer, but I keep myself calm with a combination of Ask The Pilot and close reading of CVR transcripts. Sometimes the CVR transcript do more to hurt than help, though.
posted by subbes at 2:57 PM on August 27, 2010


While waiting for a flight out of Springfield, MO to Vegas, a nasty supercell sprouted up over the airport and spat out a couple twisters within a couple miles of the terminal. When the first tornado was confirmed, the entire secured portion of the airport had to evacuate to the storm-proof portion of the terminal, which happened to be in the unsecured section.

After the first tornado passed, everyone had to go through security again. Then, about 45 minutes later, another twister was headed our way, so out we went again. After the second one passed, we dutifully went back through security one more time before wandering back to our gate.

We sat and watched in amazement as the storm raged (it was far from over) outside the giant windows. The threat of tornado had passed with the wall cloud, making room for a truly spectacular electrical storm. It was then that we learned from a member of the flight crew that the plane couldn't leave until it was refueled (natch), but the fuel guys couldn't do their job when there was that much lightning. Awesome.

After waiting and waiting, the captain finally decided we were leaving, and that we'd use what little fuel we had to fly to Wichita, which was now storm-free, for refueling. The idea of taking off in the middle of a still quite-active thunderstorm with barely enough fuel to get us to the next city made me a little uneasy. Nervous or not, I boarded the plane, flipped through sky mall, and awaited my inevitable lightning-riddled demise.

Luckily, the storm broke just long enough for us to refuel and take off, but those first 30 minutes in the air, while our plane was batted around by downdrafts and surrounded by lightning, were some of the scariest I've ever experienced on a plane. Yeesh. Just typing this out made me sweat a little.
posted by bjork24 at 3:09 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


747s can take off from much shorter runways. For example, Air Force One landed and took off from the 6501ft runway at Columbia Regional Airport. Might not have been full of fuel, though.

Was that before or after Harrison Ford told the terrorist to get off his plane?
posted by djgh at 3:52 PM on August 27, 2010


Flying into Minneapolis/St. Paul a few years ago, there was a nasty storm for a full hour before we landed. The plane was dipping and climbing pretty constantly for a full hour; felt like a roller coaster. And I love roller coasters. This, though...

I've flown a fair amount and had experienced rough air before, but on this flight, I looked around and everyone looks freaked out. The normally jaded business travellers and even, to my mild horror, the flight attendants, strapped down in their jump seats, looked pale and rigid.

We go in for a landing and the pilots pull back and the last minute, probably because the roller coaster was still going on near the ground. We circle, do another try at it, hit the damn runway at an angle, brake really really hard (lots of unsecured stuff goes flying forward), and then it's done. A spontaneous cheer goes up from us passengers. I felt like a million bucks after that.
posted by zardoz at 4:02 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


a friend of mine was on a flight from hamburg to london when the german captain calmly announced; 'ladies and gentlemen, i have regained control of the aircraft.'
posted by peterkins at 4:31 PM on August 27, 2010 [21 favorites]


A 747-400 weighs roughly 185 tons when empty; carries roughly 113 tons of passengers and cargo: and has tankage for roughly 200 tons of fuel. It should be pretty obvious that there's a big difference between the amount of runway needed by a 747 flying empty on a short-haul positioning flight (with nearly-dry tanks), and a fully-loaded cargo flight embarking on a Pacific crossing.

In addition, the take-off speed of any aircraft relates to the air speed across the wings -- for a loaded 747, it's around 170-180mph. There's a big difference between a 20 mile per hour head-wind and a 20 mile per hour tail-wind. With the former, ground speed for take-off is 20mph lower, i.e. 150mph; with the latter, it's 20mph higher (190mph).
posted by cstross at 4:59 PM on August 27, 2010


"The fuel light's on Frank, we're all going to die.....oh my mistake, that's the intercom light!"

~ The Far Side
posted by bwg at 5:38 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


True story. My cousin Walter was on this plane to New Mexico when all of the sudden the hydraulics went. The plane starts spinning around, going out of control, so he figures it's all over and whips it out and starts beating it right there. So all the other passengers take a cue from him and they start whipping it out and beating like mad! So all the passengers are beating off, plummeting to their certain doom, when all of the sudden, the hydraulics kick back in. The plane rights itself and they land safely and everyone puts their penises or, whatever, you know, away and deboard. No one mentions the phenomenon to anyone else.

actually not so true..
posted by mannequito at 5:41 PM on August 27, 2010


Air Force One landed (and took off again) at Drake Field in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 1993, which has a 6,006 foot runway and is hemmed in by hills.
posted by wierdo at 7:21 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's a big difference between a 20 mile per hour head-wind and a 20 mile per hour tail-wind. With the former, ground speed for take-off is 20mph lower, i.e. 150mph; with the latter, it's 20mph higher (190mph).

Sure, but what if it's on a conveyor belt moving 20 miles per hour the other way?
posted by mendel at 7:44 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


My plane story isn't so wild, decompression problem, sent back to Montreal. We had to wait 8 hours for another airplane. The only interesting thing is that during the wait, there was this torrential downpour.
NOTE TO AIR CANADA: Next time you have your customers wait 8 hours for their next flight, DON'T LEAVE THEIR LUGGAGE OUTSIDE ON THE TARMAC!...IT MIGHT JUST RAIN A SHITLOAD!
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 8:08 PM on August 27, 2010


This is not true. In general, take-off takes more runway length than landing.

Not *always* true, but mostly true, unless you have mid-air refueling, because otherwise, a plane will always be lighter when it lands then when it takes off -- the fuel burn ensures that.

The takeoff distance is based on three factors -- air density, engine setting, and takeoff weight. Air density is why Denver has such long runways. We'll assume that, in this case, you're going to use full engine power. So, the question is weight.

A plane specification lists many weights, but the big four are BOW, MZFW, MGTOW and MGLW. The last one is one you do not want to fuck with.

BOW is Basic Operating Weight. You have a plane, it has a cabin, seats, equipment for passengers and crew. Obviously, you're not going to make it if you never carry anyone or anything, so you load the plane. The most you can put on that isn't fuel is MZFW -- Max Zero Fuel Weight. Planes also give you ZFW as a starting point. On a 747-400, BOW is 394,000lbs, and MZFW is 535,000lbs. Now, we add fuel. How much can we add?

Well, MGTOW is the hard line -- Maximum Gross Takeoff Weight. In this case, 875,000lbs. So, you could have 340,000lbs of fuel on board. In fact, you'll start with a couple thousand pounds more (MGTXW -- Max Gross Taxi Weight) which you burn off just getting to the runway. And you will use every inch you possibly can with this bird loaded to the gills with pax and fuel.

Now, let's say the plane has some issue that prevents you from flying it in revenue service. You're ZFW drops -- no pax, no passengers, no cabin crew, just the two pilots, so ZFW is very low -- call it 400,000lbs. You're flying it to Tulsa, OK for a repair, and well, that's a lot closer than Melbourne, or Tokyo, Or JoBurg. So, we're now looking at a takeoff weight in the 450,000lbs range.

You will be amused by the takeoff roll - 5800 feet, instead of the 10,500 feet that a 744 at MGTOW will need. Indeed, it'll probably pop up in under a mile -- the charts are zero wind, you'll almost certainly have a head wind.

That last number? The *really* important one? MGLW -- Max Gross Landing Weight. In this case, a 744, it's 633,000lbs. You basically cannot land the plane until it weighs less than that. So, if you take off at MGTOW, 875klbs, you need to burn or dump 242,000lbs of fuel before you can safely do so. If you try, one of two things happens.

1) Something obviously breaks, and you crash and die.

2) Something doesn't obviously break, and you live.

But something *probably* broke. So, if you walk away from a landing over MGLW, you take the plane, tow it to a hanger, and you do a D-check, also known as the HMV - Heavy Maintenance Visit. This means take the entire plane apart and check *everything*.

If you're not at an airport that's able to do a D-check on your bird, some lucky SOB gets to fly to an airport that can, and they'll be praying the whole way that nothing bad breaks on landing.

A D-Check takes around 1-2 months to perform. Cheap at twice the time -- you land a plane above MGLW, the manufacture isn't promising that something won't break when you do. It's really important that you know if something did if you should survive such.

This is why A/C in trouble dump fuel, if they can, or fly in circles if they can't -- they're trying to get under MGLW so they can try to land safely.
posted by eriko at 8:38 PM on August 27, 2010 [14 favorites]


This is not true. In general, take-off takes more runway length than landing.

Yup. As the saying goes, It's better to stop then land, than land then stop

Bonus video feature: Extra British imperturbability.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 2:36 AM on August 28, 2010


About 10 years ago I was on a half-full plane that had just taken off from Mexico City bound for Huatulco (a 55 minute flight). It was an exceptionally clear and gorgeous day, a rarity in Mexico City, and the surrounding mountains could be seen from the ground and even better as the plane took off. But a few minutes into the ascent, the flight attendants still siting down, the plane shifted from going up to dropping completely, not nose-diving but horizontally plummeting. I remember looking through the window and literally seeing the houses bellow get bigger and larger.

This plummeting lasted for about five seconds: a lifetime. Things fell off the storage compartments, the oxigen masks descended, lots of people screamed. I was scared to death, but I didn't have enough time to make it conscious. Then the plane levelled out just as suddenly as it had started plummeting, and the agitated voice of the pilot came on the speakers: "parece que tenemos un problema y vamos a volver a aterrizar" ("we seem to have a problem and are going to land again"). Then, again suddenly, the plane banked really hard (prompting more screams) levelled again and landed, hard, amidst at least five fire trucks.

After 40 minutes waiting, it turns out the plane was under-fueled, not so severely as to not reach the destination, but enough to cause the scare. Then we were asked to re-board the plane; lots of people refused and demanded their money back and, as a result, the plane was even more empty when it took off again. I re-boarded it, moslty because of the same reasons you run to get on the roller coaster again: the adrenalin rush was unlike anything I've ever experienced. The plane landed at its destination safely. The airline was Mexicana, which is now bankrupt and ceased operations yesterday.

Never shared this little tale anywhere, except with relatives. I was saving it for a future short story, but what the hell.
posted by omegar at 11:58 AM on August 30, 2010


I really hope Patrick Smith discusses this;

Speaking of whom, I can't get this story of his out of my head while reading this thread: The full, unexpurgated story of what happens when dry ice is mixed with blue toilet acid at 33,000 feet.
posted by zarq at 12:28 PM on August 30, 2010


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