Dear IFALPA: The Airplanes Have Already Left the Hangar

By Robert Mark on July 19th, 2007

Just after another Brazilian aviation tragedy snuffed out the lives of 200 people in Sao Paulo Tuesday night comes word from the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Association that airports there should be built with better Runway Safety Areas (RSAs). 

At the risk of sounding callous, the airport didn’t kill anyone. The pilots evaluated the situation and decided to land based on what they thought the aircraft was capable of.

Someone asked today if I thought the pilots knew what was going to happen and if they would have continued had they realized. Of course not.

But complacency about the risks is always a threat hanging above the head of anyone who flies. We always think we can make it. But sometimes the deck gets stacked against us and we don’t recognize the mounting pressures for what they really are.

Was there company pressure on the pilots to get the full flight home to Sao Paulo? Perhaps Was this yet one more example of an incompetent aviation bureaucracy in Brazil? Probably a factor. Did the pilots simply screw up? Always a chance.

Airport Cameras

This video, just released on Brazil’s UOL News network, shows the airport on the night of the accident.

Unless it has been doctored, it claims to show video comparisons between the fatal TAM airplane just before the crash vs. other flights that night. If they are accurate, the TAM aircraft was moving one heck of a lot faster across the ground at touchdown than other airplanes.

Warning … the last segment of this video shows the TAM aircraft going off the end of the runway and a huge orange fireball erupting just off camera.

The question I’m still asking myself is why IFALPA is wasting time and energy issuing statements that tell us what we already know.

How about a statement instead that says “Stay the hell out of Brazil because there are too many scary things happening there for us to be able to say the Brazilian system is safe. And we don’t have any confidence in Brazilian aviation officials to fix and until they do, we don’t want to risk the lives of one more pilot, crewmember or passenger from any country.”

If Brazilian aviation officials won’t listen, it’s their country.

But the rest of the world needs to stop hiding their heads in the sand when any trip includes a stop in Brazil.

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14 Responses to “Dear IFALPA: The Airplanes Have Already Left the Hangar”

  1. Bill Palmer Says:

    I think your allegation that IFALPA just now came out with a statement about RSAs is unfair and misleading.
    When Air France performed a nearly identical maneuver in Toronto, ALPA/IFALPA stated then that this is exactly the reason they had been campaigning for such areas in the past and will into the future.
    Of course, it was shown that the Air France pilots’ approach was significantly faster than normal and would not have been considered a stabilized approach.
    I will speculate that the same may be found of the TAM flight. The video is compelling; however, the fact that the runway was recently resurfaced, and not yet grooved would add to the hydroplaning tendancy in rain – which was certainly occurring at the time. CNN reports that one of the reversers was also inoperative. High power asymmetrical reverse is also not a great option due to the potential loss of directional control. The spray/mist pattern visible on the video seems to show that the left reverser was at least deployed. If your brakes aren’t doing the job due to hydroplaning on a waterlogged runway, you’re not going to slow down (hence the fast airplane on the videos); If your reverse thrust isn’t working on top of that, what do you have left?
    Let’s remember what we see:
    We see the TAM aircraft going faster than other aircraft – on the ground. Those other aircraft had some period of decelleration before appearing on the video. We can’t (yet) compare the post-touch down deceleration of the TAM aircraft vs. “normal” speed landing aircraft. We might eventualy learn that the TAM (like the Air France A-340 in YYZ) was flying too fast on approach. We may also learn that they were flying a normal approach speed, and the rain, runway slickness (no grooving), standing water, and lack of reverse all piled up against them after touchdown.
    I would be looking to see if the wind switched around on them at the same during the approach, providing a tailwind on landing. Obviously, that can add significant groundspeed to the landing.
    I will be interesting to see if the A-320’s minimum ground speed adjustment to its approach speed (GSmini) played a factor or was overridden by the crew.

    Two significant quotes from the CNN article:
    A day before the crash, two planes skidded off the runway. On March 22, a Boeing 737-400 overshot the runway in a heavy rain, stopping just short of a steep drop.
    The Congonhas airport recently resurfaced its runway to provide better braking in rainy conditions. But the new surface hadn’t dried enough to cut deep grooves into the tarmac that allow water to run off the runway and provide increased grip. Airplanes continued to slide off the runway after the resurfacing was done and before Tuesday’s crash.

    So, we probably have the usual chain of events/factors:
    Bad weather, water on the runway ,unusually slick runway, short runway, fast approach, no runway safety area, impared reverse thrust, and deadly conditions off the end of the runway.

    In the meantime, let’s hold off on the judgements until the DFDR’s contents are revealed. There’s one thing that’s always consistent on any aviation related report in the news – they get it wrong.

    A330 Capt/APD/Check Airman
    prev A320 Capt/APD/Check Airman

  2. Rob Mark Says:

    This is a pretty compelling anlaysis Bill. I don’t claim to be a hyrdoplaning expert, but like you, my guess is that will turn up in the report.

    On the IFALPA comment, I was actually trying to make the point that IFALPA could be influential in the Brazil ATC mess where no one else has.

    And while I think the comment about the runway probably needing the same sort of treatment they gave 31 Center here at MDW, they have missed an opportunity to help the entire industry.

    Do you believe it is simply airline operating economics that keeps people from saying enough in Brazil?

    I wonder what the reaction would be here in the states if that had been a U.S. registered airplane that crashed.

  3. Bill Palmer Says:

    Good questions.
    I would have to consult the majic 8 ball for answers.
    IFALPA having in influence? I might have thought so prior to the experience with the mid-air. All bets are off now, for anything to do with Brazil, as far as I am concerned.

  4. Robert Mark Says:

    I am really sorry to hear that about IFALPA Bill. I was hoping that maybe I’d completly missed something, but I think you’re absolutely correct, that boat seems to have sailed.

    I really wish I knew why although I’m sure someone will tell me “It’s about money dummy.”
    Perhaps the Air Transport Association lobby is much more powerful than many people think.

    Thanks very much for your comments. What city do you fly from?

  5. Bill Palmer Says:

    Usually from DTW, but now sidetracked on a project getting ready for introduction of the B-787 next year.

  6. Garry Conn Says:


    With your experience as a pilot, do you think that there might have been a small window of opportunity for the pilots to have made a quick decision to do a “touch and go”. Meaning… upon landing and quickly discovering that the plan isn’t stopping, could the pilots have made a decision to take back off?

    Looking at the video surveillance camera shows the A320 traveling down the runway at a very fast pace. Granted, at that point in time, attempting to take back off might not have been possible… but what about prior to what is seen in the video?

    Also, and I am not a pilot, but… come on?? A multi million dollar airplane such as the Airbus A320 being in operation with a broken reverse thruster? Why? To me, that seems stupid. You are dealing with an airplane that cost in the area of $50 million dollars. Why in the world would an airline not service their airplane and have the reverse thruster operable. That doesn’t make sense.

    I am curious to discover where the plane touched down at on the runway too. That video is truly sad to see. I feel terrible. I would be upset to discover this malfunction on a crashed airplane a loved one was involved in.

    If the reverse thruster was working along with the one that was functioning, could it have saved the plane?

  7. Airbus A320 Reverse Thrust Trend Says:

    […] newly written article, I discovered one paragraph that caught my eye in relation to the new tragic Airbus A320 crash in Brazil. Below is a quote from the archived article written which I believe to have been published on July […]

  8. Robert Mark Says:

    Where they touched down is important Garry, but as I mentioned earlier and Bill Palmer added to later with his thoughts about hydroplaning, it is always a combination of factors.

    One reverser out also would have added a turning moment to the airplane on touchdown, kind of like try to steer your car on a wet road with only the brakes on the right side grabbing.

    Were the pilots at fault? You can bet there will be people who say absolutely.

    And certainly, the pilots are the ones who made the final decision to land after evaluating all the factors.

    But that kind of an answer is way too simple.

    What made these guys think they could make the approach and landing safely? What else might have happened after landing that was just the last straw. Was there a thought about hydroplaning in their decision? we’ll need to listen to the voice recorder for that answer.

    It’s never just one problem, at least not usually.

  9. Norton Says:

    Bill, very clear in your comments. Thanks.
    A friend of mine, a pilot, always says, an accident is like the jackpot.. you have all the same figures at once and bingo….certainly there was a combination of factors… just one going wrong triggers all the others that could help but were not there.. It should not surprised us the Brazilian issues since behind it there is a big dispute over control of the airspace which was “passed” to civilian hands by Congress/Government but has not been enacted. Same situation in Argentina. The Air Force does not want to loose the power and control and hence they will not contribute with much clarity…

  10. Bill Palmer Says:

    Some additional info and insight and answers to questions:
    1) We do not train or advocate taking back off again after a usual touch down. Usually at that point brakes come on, reverse thrust come out, spoilers are up. Unless you are setting up for an intentional touch-and go, where the spoilers and autobrakes won’t be armed, and the reversers not deployed. We do train to execute a go-around if you can’t touch down at the appropriate place on the runway.

    2)Virtually all aircraft performance (landing distance) is calculated without the use of reverse thrust. Any effect of reverse thrust is then “gravy.” Therefore, when one reverser is inoperative, (and that is not all that unusual, though a repair would be -required- within a 3-10 days), all the landing distance calcuations and planning are still valid.
    However, the inoperative reverse thrust was critical in the apparent critical mistake the crew made.
    The A320 uses automatic spoiler deployment on landing and autobrakes. The spoiler deploy signal (and then the subsequent autobrake activation signal) is initiated by both thrust levers being at idle and both wheels on the ground (there are some other exceptions of combinations but they are beyond the scope of this).
    With the thrust reversed disabled, the instructions are, never the less, to operate the thrust lever and reverse thrust lever as normal.
    However, Airbus has indicated that their analysis of the data shows that this did not happen.
    In the flare, when BOTH thrust levers should have been retarded to idle (an automatic “retard, retard” call is made), only the left one was (the one with the operative thrust lever. The other remained in the CLB detent (the normal operating position from just after takeoff to just before touchdown.) When the left thrust lever was retarded to idle the autothrust disengaged. When that happens with a thrust lever in CLB, the thrust for that engine remains where it was. In this case 1.2 EPR – which is above idle.
    So…. That sets up the accident scenario.

    After touchdown, one engine is at idle, and soon selected to reverse; the other is still producing forward thrust. The ground spoilers did not deploy (this produces aerodynamic braking and increased weight on wheels for better wheel braking), which means the autobrakes did also not activate.
    So their sailing down the slippery runway, with one engine in reverse, the other producing some forward thrust, and no brakes on. Brakes are not applied until 11 seconds after touchdown(that’s a long time), and when they are, differential braking is used to aid in steering – which means that less than maximum braking is being used.
    Well, as you saw in the videos, it’s not long before the short, wet runway is used up. So off the end they go. But there is no runway overrun, or engineered arresting material to help prevent them from careening into the ditch.

  11. Rob Mark Says:

    This is very interesting Bill.

    I can’t imagine the training that got these two pilots to this point though. Who tries to pull even one engine into reverse when the other throttle is not back at idle?

    And are you saying that autobrakes do not begin until 11 seconds after touchdown? That is a lifetime.

  12. Al Says:

    i just hope I’m not going to fly on an airplane piloted by you or Robert or other pilots like the two of you or the ones in Toronto and Sao Paolo.

    Wind switch around ? it adds significant groundspeed ? How significant Bill ? Isnt that at least 10kts/sec as required by cert ? and isnt that communicated to the crew Bill ?
    Some period of deceleration ? And then 11 sec Bill ? Where exactly do you pull up these things ? Do you at least know what are the ground conditions that have to be met by the autobrake ? Does it take you Bill 11 sec then to react and override the autobrake ?
    Too fast Bill ? How fast ? Something like 1.25 Vs, max. ?
    Waterlogged runway ? Aquaplanning ? Im sorry for you Bill but there are conditions for the wet runways. 121.195 does that ring a bell ? Aquaplanning ? Againg you keep gossiping like an auntie not like a pilot Bill. Modern braking systems have aquaplaning protection Bill.
    What else ? Im sorry for you and your passengers if you use differential braking at high speeds. Have you heard of rudder ? Why would I use diff braking when I have steering which anyway is inop above 100 kts ? For the pilots like you not to step on it ?
    The one thrust reverser is an MMEL and you must have known that. And one is a cert requirement on wet runways. Plus the pilot is not allowed to land if the runway is not long enough, the certified distance on wet runways being 60 % of the field lenght multiplied with something like 1.15 if I remember correctly.
    And did the spoilers deploy or not ?
    Bye, Im losing my time with you.

  13. Bill Palmer Says:

    I don’t appreciate the insults. They are totally uncalled for in a gentlemanly discussion.

    My information comes from reilable sources (as I stated), and from years of experience as a pilot and instructor on Airbus aircraft. My most recent entry describes what actaully happened in this accident not what I would do.
    11 seconds is the time it took the crew to apply maximum braking. Autobrakes did not activate.

    Anti-skid systems do NOT provide full protection against hydroplaning. Runway grooving is an important and significant safety feature that was missing on this runway.

    The normal A320 autobrake activation time is between 0 and 4 seconds after the automatic spoiler deployment signal is sent – and depends on the level of autobrake selected and the Brake Steering Control Unit software version.

    Spoilers did not deploy.

  14. Travel Articles Says:

    As we all know, there are supposed to be multiple safety fail-safe systems to ensure the lives of passengers. As what recently happened in the US that a thousand or more flights has been canceled because there was evidence that maintenance on commercial planes cut corners.
    What can anybody say to the recent fact with regards to these discussions?

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