Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Oh, My . . .

By Mark W. Danielson

A group of passengers were enroute to LA for a Cinco De Mayo celebration. The flight from Dallas was rough until crossing the line of thunderstorms. After that, the white-knuckle ride was over. Seated in 7F, the approach into LAX was superb. The cold front had cleared the air, and the Hollywood sign was clearly visible. As the aircraft neared the ground, the power came back and then the plane wobbled. Suddenly, fingers began digging into arm rests and unfortunate companions seated next to them. The wing dipped left, then right, and then the plane landed with a thump. Except for one, “Oh, my”, the cabin remained silent until the aircraft cleared the runway. Soon after, the flight attendant announced, “Welcome to Los Angeles,” in as pleasant a voice as he could muster. The cockpit door remained closed while the pilots discussed the landing. In forty minutes, they would be pushing back to do it all over again.

Most likely, anyone who routinely flies on airliners have ridden through landings like this, and more often than not, base their flying experience on the landing. Most will never know or care about what it took to get this airplane to its destination. Passengers have no reason to know that the thunderstorms along their route would have ripped their airplane to pieces had the pilots not avoided them. Nor do they have any reason to understand how gusty crosswinds can affect the landing. But in defense of all airline pilots, I’m going to explain landings in layman’s terms.

For golfers, landings are like putts. You stoop down, evaluate the terrain, maybe toss a piece of grass to check the wind, and then take your shot. You have spent years practicing your putts and yet you still miss now and then. Nine times out of ten you can sink a three-footer, but then you just misjudge your power, wind, or slope and miss. Bummer. Better luck next time.

For bowlers, landings are like bowling strikes. If you’re consistent enough, you should bowl a strike every time. Plenty of people have done it, and when you think about it, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. After all, there is no wind or terrain to affect your ball. Blame it on your shoe or the bowler in the next lane, but this time you throw a gutter ball. Hmm; not what you expected was it? Down another gulp and try it again.

For anglers, landings are like bass fishing. Experience has told you where the fish are, how to cast, and what hooks to use. You have won several tournaments because of your expertise, and yet this time, just as you lower your net to scoop your fish, it breaks away and leaves you with nothing more than a story. Oh, so close. Cast away.

For ice skaters, you have performed the same jump hundreds of times. You have won numerous competitions since you were eight years old in front of audiences large and small. And yet this time, your timing is off and you end up on your rear, much to your coach’s dismay. Tears flow as you await your score. No flowers this time.

I could go on, but the fact is every landing is a combination of skill and luck. Every airline pilot strives to make their airplane kiss the ground, but sometimes, the conditions are beyond their control. While pilots can manipulate their flight controls, they have no control over the elements. Gusty winds can affect an aircraft as much as human elements. The most important factor in airline flying is safety, and the most important aspect of a landing is touching down in the first three thousand feet of runway. If these conditions cannot be met, then the pilots are expected to abort the landing and try it again. So although every touchdown may not be perfectly smooth, realize that it was performed safely and thank the crew for getting you to your destination. Happy Cinco De Mayo. :)
Photo by Jeffery Groener


Jean Henry Mead said...

Happy Cinco de Mayo, Mark. Very good article. My first plane belly dived onto the Stockton, California runway due to a landing gear malfunction. Subsequent flights were in storms, high cross winds and icy runways. Needless to say I'm a white knuckled flyer although grateful to the pilots for their landing skills. :)

Ken Brooks said...

Good analogies, Mark! I'm constantly bemused by passengers' comments. No matter whether it's positive or negative, I usually answer "We always try to have good landings." We pilots all know that you can fly the best, smoothest approach, but if the landing isn't great, they judge your skill by the landing. It's just the way it is. I always look at the bright side and say, well, at least I am the one to be flying and landing and not some other guy!

Mark W. Danielson said...

I agree, Ken. Under the worst conditions, I'd much rather be making the landing than riding through it. Thankfully, boxes never complain, and with luck, they won't break open :)

Teresa said...

Teresa Lundeen said....
Responding as a mere passenger, I do take into account the work of the flight crew (from stewardess's on up)! I have sat by many passengers that seem to take it for granted, so you deserve to pat yourself and colleagues on the back. Signed, a grateful passenger :-)