“Landing gear malfunctions tend to be splendidly telegenic, but rarely are they going to end in disaster”:
Touching down without landing gear isn’t a whole lot different from touching down with landing gear. For this reason — and contrary to what was reported on page one of last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal – pilots do not receive formal, specific training in how to land without landing gear. There’s little technique involved, other than to meet the ground as slowly, smoothly, and with the wings as level possible — not terribly different from how it’s done any other day of the week. There would have been some complications during the approach – for instance, a slightly higher speed due to flap and slat complications – but nothing major. Hands-on talent has a role here, but not a big one.
…“This required great piloting skill,” Chesley Sullenberger told CNN in an interview on Wednesday. And with that, it’s easy to romanticize the pilot’s role here, envisioning the captain, square-jawed and scowling like Charlton Heston in Airport ’75, 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.
…Skill means different things, and in this instance it refers not to the hands-on skill of flying, per se, so much as the skills of coordination, communication and effective management of a crisis.
Pilots aren’t trained in how to land a jet on its belly, strictly speaking, but they are specifically trained to deal with malfunctions, including landing gear and hydraulic malfunctions, and to handle and prepare for emergencies. What was truly different about this landing, and the key to its successful outcome, was the preparation that went into it.
Apparently the crew was aware of a hydraulics problem nearly 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. The biggest 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 (two is standard, but long-haul flights carry augmented crews). Airline dispatch and maintenance personnel would have been involved in these discussions as well, along with air traffic control.
The aircraft then circled overhead Warsaw providing ample time for the pilots to run their remaining checklists and brief the cabin crew and passengers on what to expect. The flight attendants, whose role in this should not be under-emphasized, would’ve stowed loose items and made sure everyone was as ready as possible for an evacuation on the runway — itself a hazardous operation.
In the end, this wasn’t about a landing. It was about managing and coordinating a difficult situation. It was about preparing for that landing. And all parties involved performed admirably.
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