Emergency Landing

Q: I’d like to hear your take on a video. What are we seeing here? An emergency landing? Drunken pilots?

The video in question portrays an otherwise unidentified Airbus in the throes of a very unstable approach and badly bollixed landing. The twelve-second clip has been making the cyberspace circuit for some time, accompanied by varyingly inaccurate analyses.

Fact check: The aircraft is either an Airbus A318 or A319 — variants of the popular A320 — and not a Boeing 737 as many claim. The airline is one I cannot recognize, though it is not Air China, China Air (there’s no such thing), or any of the others frequently cited. There’s invariably a reference to China, so possibly the clip originated there. Lettering on the fuselage seems to say “Taiwan” or “Taiwair,” though a search of the world’s airlines reveals no such carrier. (If you ask me, any company calling itself “Taiwair” deserves to be out of business.)

The repeated bouncing isn’t nearly as drastic as it appears. Look carefully and you’ll notice the video is rapidly sped up from just after the moment of touchdown, to make the porpoising sequence more violent. The plane is not crashing. Neither is it “out of control” or on its way to becoming a flaming heap at the end of the runway.

Causes might include just about anything from severe weather to pilot error to a technical malfunction — though almost certainly not, as one source suggests, an intoxicated crew. “It may have been some sort of test flight,” comments Doug (last name withheld), who flies the A319/A320 for a major airline. “Getting the nose to bounce like that wouldn’t be easy. It’s the kind of thing a pilot has to make happen.” An abnormally hard or too-fast landing, for instance, would be prone to cause a bounce of the entire airplane, not the lateral axis pivot seen in the recording.

Intentional or otherwise, the answer might lie somewhere in the A320’s high-tech flight control system. Partly to prevent crews from commanding overly-aggressive maneuvers at very low altitudes, parameters of pitch, roll, and bank are computer-adjusted as the plane nears a runway. One of these control mode shifts occurs after the point of touchdown, automatically changing the resultant forces of a pilot’s inputs. Conceivably, a glitch could find a pilot inadvertently inducing the type of oscillations shown.

Makes sense? Don’t worry about it. At one point Doug started talking about “alternate law.” I though he was quoting Heidegger or somebody until I realized he was referencing one of the backup modes of the A320’s electronic flight control repertoire.

Long and short, the video isn’t all that compelling. For a bigger thrill, and while I don’t intend to sensationalize a tragedy, try this.

Here you see the 1996 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 767, off a beach in the Comoros Islands. The plane has been hijacked and is out of fuel, trying to ditch off a beach in the Comoros Islands, while dozens of startled tourists look on (at least one, naturally, with a camcorder). Hijackers and crew are wrestling for control, and the airplane flips after a wing catches the surf.

For those who doubt the survivability of water landings, or the value of those life vest demos, 45 of the 172 passengers and crew escaped this accident alive. Had the plane not tumbled, many more would have survived.

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.