Friday, April 11, 2014

National Transportation Safety Board Renews Call for MD-11 Jet Safety: Board Wants New Cockpit Aids, Looks at Pilot Landing Experience

The Wall Street Journal

By Andy Pasztor

April 11, 2014 6:46 p.m. ET

Almost two decades after U.S. air-safety officials addressed some dangerous handling characteristics of MD-11 jetliners, there is a renewed call to take further action.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that regulators require installation of new cockpit aids and cues to help MD-11 pilots avoid botched landings that have resulted in a history of hazardous bounces, wing fractures and even some aircraft rolling over on the runway.

The board said the widebody jet, which suffered 13 hard landings between 1994 and 2010, has the highest rate of such dangerous touchdowns among 27 Western-built jet models, based on the number of flights.

More than 140 of the jets remain in service with cargo carriers, though passenger airlines have essentially phased them out. McDonnell Douglas Corp. introduced the plane 24 years ago and in 1997 Boeing Co. bought the company.

In addition to calling for installation of additional safety systems, the NTSB this month said it wants the Federal Aviation Administration to consider imposing more-stringent experience requirements on MD-11 pilots than those flying other big Boeing or Airbus jets. To maintain proficiency and comply with federal rules, U.S. airline pilots operating scheduled flights typically must make at least three landings every 90 days or they won't be considered "current" to fly passengers or cargo. In its letter, the board said the plane's accident history means that MD-11 pilots could benefit from "additional landing experience beyond the current requirement."

Such a recommendation is unusual, because implementing it could upset airline training and scheduling systems. Since MD-11s typically are used on medium- to long-haul routes, their pilots have relatively few chances to execute landings compared with pilots flying shorter routes. As a result, the safety board said such crews may lack "sufficient opportunities to maintain their skills" when it comes to "making appropriate control inputs" just before touchdown.

A spokesman for Boeing said the company is reviewing the recommendations and will submit comments by the beginning of July.

An FAA spokeswoman said the agency will "carefully consider all recommendations" from the NTSB and since 1993 has worked with the board to implement 44 of 47 previous recommendations related to the MD-11. "We look forward to working with the board on these new recommendations to improve the safety of the MD-11 fleet," the spokeswoman said.

The board's letter highlights the continuing safety controversy over the three-engine plane 24 years after McDonnell Douglas introduced it into service, promising that computerized flight controls would offer a big safety advance.

Instead, the MD-11 was beset by a series of problems, including particularly sensitive controls at low and high altitudes; a tendency for pilots to smack the plane's tail on the runway during takeoffs; and persistent landing accidents.

Boeing has implemented a number of software upgrades and pilot manual changes since it bought McDonnell Douglas. Starting in the late 1990s, the MD-11 gained a reputation as an unforgiving airplane with finicky handling that can make it particularly hard to land.

In 2011, the NTSB urged improved recurrent training and operational guidance for MD-11 pilots. The latest recommendations are intended to provide "longer term solutions for further reducing the risk of MD-11 landing accidents," according to the board.

In its letter, the safety board referred to a FedEx Corp. MD-11 that bounced repeatedly while trying to land in 2009 at Narita International Airport in Japan. The left wing broke, both pilots were killed and the cargo plane burned up. A year later, a Deutsche Lufthansa AG MD-11 cargo plane made a hard landing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, causing the rear of the fuselage to rupture and the nose gear to collapse. One pilot was seriously injured and the plane was destroyed.

A spokesman for FedEx said the company is still reviewing the recommendations, which were released in early April.

According to the NTSB, MD-11 hard landings frequently involve failures by the pilots to pull up the nose of the plane just before touchdown and in some instances stem from "mismanagement of bounced landings," which can cause the airplane to "porpoise," or exhibit a series of upward and downward motions close to the ground.

Other factors the board cited were the MD-11's high landing speed and cockpit placement that reduces pilot awareness of the landing gear's contact with the ground. The board said "it is important to reduce the possibility" of excessive flight command by pilots close to the ground, which could result in a bounced landing.