Recent air crashes highlight leading cause of flight deaths

Bloomberg News /

Published Sep 7, 2013 at 05:00AM

WASHINGTON — An Asian airline’s wide-body slams into a sea wall. A 737 with 150 people aboard hits the runway so hard its nose gear buckles. A cargo plane barely misses houses before plowing into a hillside short of the runway.

These recent accidents, marking the deadliest period for airlines in the U.S. since 2009, have something in common: Had the pilots aborted their landings at the first sign of trouble — a move known as a go-around — they might have avoided tragedy.

“They’d all be walking, talking and alive if they went around,” Patrick Veillette, a pilot who teaches and writes about aviation safety, said in an interview.

The three U.S. air crashes since July 6, which killed five people, spotlight the difficulty in getting pilots to abort touchdowns if they haven’t made safe approaches to the runway. It’s “the largest, lowest hanging piece of safety fruit” to make flying less hazardous, according to research sponsored by the Alexandria, Va.-based Flight Safety Foundation.

Crashes that occur during approach or touchdown are the world’s leading category of aviation mishaps and deaths, according to data compiled by Chicago-based manufacturer Boeing. The biggest risk factor for such accidents is failing to approach a runway at the proper speed, altitude and heading, known as an unstabilized approach.

If safety regulators can persuade pilots to conduct more go-arounds, lives may be saved and costs to airlines in damaged equipment and liability may be lowered.

Computerized flight-track records and a survey of 2,340 pilots sponsored by the safety foundation found that crews have a long way to go to comply with airline requirements to abort landings if their approaches were unstable. Almost all pilots, or 97 percent, continued to land in spite of the rules that they climb away from the runway and circle around to try again, according to the research.

“That’s a risk factor that we really need to work on,” Rudy Quevedo, director of global programs at the foundation, said in an interview.

The issue isn’t simple or new, Quevedo and Veillette said.

“There isn’t a commercial pilot who can say, ‘Shame on you. You should have gone around,’” Veillette said. “We’ve all been in situations where in retrospect, we should have gone around and didn’t.”

Setting up a proper approach to a landing is critical to safety, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the aviation industry, and the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization.

“It’s really all physics,” Quevedo said. “You want to be centered on the runway on the correct trajectory, the correct descent rate and the right speed.”

If that happens, a plane will almost always cross the start of the runway at a height of about 50 feet, which is optimal for a safe landing, he said.

Airlines typically require that a plane be stabilized at 1,000 feet above the runway in poor visibility and at 500 feet in clear weather. Pilots must also have performed required checklists, extended landing gear and configured the plane for landing, according to the foundation.

“If not — GO AROUND!” an FAA advisory to pilots and airlines says.

While the National Transportation Safety Board hasn’t said what caused the three recent crashes, information it has released shows evidence of the aircraft being unstable at points within a mile or two from the runway or of pilots perceiving they were off course.