Landing on the Nose

The other day I noticed a story about a plane carrying 53 passengers that did an emergency landing at Belfast airport. Here is a picture from that link:

The story caught my attention for a couple of reasons. One is that the airline and type of plane (a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400) were exactly the same as the one I took from Cardiff to Dublin a few weeks ago. The other is that something very similar happened to me many years ago, on a trip to America. That event may even have involved the same type of plane, as it was a twin turbo-prop, but in my memory the one I was on was a bit smaller than the one shown above. I don’t remember the name of the airline either (though it might have been the now-defunct US Airways) but it was taking me to State College (Pennsylvania, USA), from either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, for a meeting at Penn State University. I’m not sure of the year, either, but it must have been around 1990.. I’m not sure of the year, either, but it must have been around 1990. From all that you can infer that my memory isn’t all that good, but I do remember the details of the emergency landing extremely well!

We were approaching State College when I noticed that the plane started circling around the airport, which was visible below. Circling prior to landing owing to air traffic restrictions is not an unfamiliar experience for anyone coming into land at, e.g., London Heathrow, but State College airport is in a fairly remote location in rural Pennsylvania so a problem with the air traffic seemed unlikely. Eventually the pilot came onto the intercom and explained that there was a problem with the undercarriage under the nose of the aircraft and we would have to make an emergency landing. The circling was an attempt to use up fuel to reduce the risk of fire on landing. The dozen or so people on the plane seemed quite scared as the pilot explained the procedure, including the brace position to be assumed when was making its landing.

As it happened, I was seated in a window seat next to the emergency door on the port side near the front of the aircraft so it would be my job to open it and get out quickly to let everyone else get out. As we came into land I studied the instructions over and over again. I am not a particularly courageous individual, and I think having that to concentrate on is the best explanation for why I actually didn’t feel all that scared. I was too busy concentrating on the task at hand to let anything else into my head.

Soon we were coming into land. I could see fire engines from their lights flashing either side of the runway as we came down. The pilot shouted “BRACE! BRACE! BRACE!” as the plane touched down on the wheels under the wings, and was a sharp deceleration as the braking systems were deployed. When we were moving sufficiently slowly the pilot dropped the nose, the plane dipped forward and there was a scraping sound as the plane veered to port. It tilted again which I (correctly) assumed was because it had left the runway and was on the grass verge.

The shout came `OPEN THE DOORS’ and I followed the instructions to the letter, turning the handle, pulling the door towards me so it detached and then flinging it out of the aircraft. It worked like clockwork. I felt like a hero, but that sense of pride soon vanished. Forgetting that the plane had tipped forward, I misjudged the step onto the emergency chute that had deployed and, instead of proceeding in an orderly fashion, I tripped on the way out and fell flat on my face. Fortunately, it was not far down to the ground from the door and it had been raining so I fell onto wet grass rather than concrete. I picked myself up and followed the instructions of the firemen to get the hell away from the plane. I’m sure they were laughing as I ran past them to safety.

The plane was safely evacuated and nobody was hurt. Nobody else got covered in mud like I did either…

Later on I got to know a guy who worked on safety training for cabin crew at British Airways. He told me that one of the most important things about an emergency situation on an aircraft is to give the passengers something to do to keep them occupied. That is the best way to prevent panic. It certainly worked with me!

18 Responses to “Landing on the Nose”

  1. I read an article about when the US Indianapolis (i’m not sure if I have that ship name right) sank. There weren’t enough life boats and so someone was always in the water. They traded off. And waited for days while people around them were eaten by sharks. The commanders ended up forcing the men the disassemble and re-assemble their guns to keep them occupied. Something to focus on instead of letting the terror lead to unreasonable behavior that would kill even more of them.
    It worked. Such a mundane – apparently pointless task, kept them sane in an utterly horrific situation.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    It’s not unknown for tailstrike (self-explanatory; whether on takeoff or landing) to total a plane, at least in terms of repair cost exceeding replacement, so I wonder if this incident (yours, and flybe’s) did too.

    Given that you know the airport It would be easier than you imagine to get an exact date for your incident and see what happened to the plane. Incredibly detailed records are kept of all incidents and they are now online.

    • telescoper Says:

      Even minor incidents, and do they go back to the 80s?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Yes. Here is the search facility:

        I’ve put in UNV which is the code for the airport you landed at, but can find nothing matching yourt description between 11/11/1980 and 11/11/2000, dates I chose fairly randomly. (After typing the N of UNV a prompt comes up which you should select.) Perhaps the incident is officially attached to the takeoff airport?

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes. Maybe I misremembered the location! That was a time when I did a lit of flying about the USA. Was sure it was University Park. Hmmm.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        The list is not guaranteed comprehensive but in view of the smallness of many things logged there I’d expect yours to be there.

      • Yes. Strange. Must do some more digging. I think my memory is playing tricks!

      • telescoper Says:

        The site does say that it is complete for `accidents’ but contains only selected `incidents’. The former is defined if there a fatality or serious injury to a person or persons or if there is serious damage to the aircraft. Otherwise it is an incident. I think I was in an incident not an accident and for some reason it is not logged there…

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Here’s the FlyBe landing:

    There are plenty of these videos on YouTube because the media generally have time to get a camera crew there while the plane circles. Here’s another:

    • The Flybe plane travelled a long distance with the nose down. The one I experienced was more like the second example, with the nose up most of the way followed by a quick stop when it came down.

      In both cases the plane seems not to have swerved.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I expect that the pilots are told to use reverse thrust at full power right until the aircraft has stopped; this strategy minimises the distance the aircraft travels on its nose. The jet has a greater power to weight ratio; that’s why it can fly faster. So it goes a shorter distance.

        Reverse thrust on a jet is achieved by redirecting the engine outflow forward. On a prop plane it is achieved by changing the pitch of the propeller blades.

      • telescoper Says:

        According to the newspaper reports the FlyBe plane suffered ‘extensive damage’. It does surprise me that the nose went down so soon.

  4. A couple of points for perspective from a pilot:

    On the spectrum of emergencies, a gear-up landing is, all else being equal, actually less dangerous than a lot of other things (e.g., an in-flight fire). It’s true that there’s a non-zero risk of fire on landing, so using up any extra fuel you can is helpful, but even then the risk is relatively modest. (Spectacular examples, like the airliner that landed with a shower of sparks from a sideways nose wheel a few years ago, are rare exceptions.) But in most cases where this happens, the plane skids to a stop with little fanfare. You deploy fire crews and other emergency services anyway, of course, just in case something does happen.

    Veering to one side was probably due to crosswinds (the plane lacking any steering ability on the ground at low speed) or mismatched braking on the main gear, or both. It certainly complicates matters, especially if it happens at high speed, but in a well controlled landing the plane should be moving slowly enough by then that it isn’t a major problem.

    It’s hard to say why in one incident the nose gets lowered gently and another it slams down hard. It’s probably a combination of many factors: aircraft loading, landing characteristics, pilot skill, even dumb luck (wind shifting unexpectedly) more than it is any single thing. In the more extreme cases it’s certainly possible the aircraft was considered damaged beyond repair, but in many other cases the plane needs little more than a new coat of paint or a new nose gear door and it’s as good as new.

    I hope you don’t think I’m making light of your experience, I certainly don’t intend to! I’ve been in a few situations (thankfully all resolved without incident!) from both the front seat and somewhere in back, and for sure anything out of the ordinary in an airplane immediately consumes one’s full attention, as it should. Your focus on following the instructions you’d been given is to be commended.

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