The Aviation Herald reports on a bizarre incident involving a United Airlines Airbus A320, which has some concerning implications.
Before anyone tries to downplay this, let me emphasize that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has categorized this as an accident, and the plane has now been out of service for three months. Anyway, let’s start at the beginning…
United A320 had tail strike, but kept flying anyway
On March 22, 2023, a 17-year-old United Airbus A320 with the registration code N1902U flew from Mexico City (MEX) to Houston (IAH) with 151 passengers and six crew. The plane landed at 5:27PM, and struck its tail on the runway surface, causing substantial damage.
Okay, mistakes happen sometimes, but the airline industry has a culture of always erring on the side of caution. Well, or does it? This is where the story gets strange. Following this incident, the plane remained in service for an additional seven flights over the course of four days, before finally being grounded.
Only after those seven flights was the plane taken out of service. The plane wasn’t just grounded briefly, but rather it hasn’t flown a passenger flight ever since, indicative of major damage. On April 21, roughly a month after the incident, the aircraft was ferried from Dallas to Houston, and then it hasn’t flown for the past two months. Airlines don’t take planes out of service just for sport (especially during the summer travel season), so it seems like the aircraft may have some major issues.
What the NTSB reports about this accident
The NTSB categorized this as an accident, as the aircraft sustained substantial damage. As a result, the NTSB has conducted a full investigation, with the final report being published on June 21, 2023.
The NTSB determined that the tail strike resulted in abrasion damage over an area of about 19 feet long by one foot wide, along the aft lower fuselage. Furthermore, an inspection revealed substantial damage to the aft pressure bulkhead and frames.
The NTSB states that the probable cause for the accident was the following:
The first officer’s failure to maintain the correct airspeed and pitch attitude during landing which resulted in a tailstrike.
Here’s a bit more detail from the report about how the tailstrike happened:
According to the flight crew, the captain was the pilot monitoring, and the first officer (FO) was the pilot flying when they were cleared for the visual approach to runway 27 at KIAH. The airplane was in the landing configuration and on a stabilized approach at 1,000 ft. above ground level (AGL). About 60 ft AGL the captain noticed the airspeed begin to decay and stated watch your speed. The FO subsequently pitched the nose of the airplane down and added a little thrust. About 30 ft AGL, due to a higher-than-normal rate of descent the captain commanded flare, flare, flare. The FO flared the airplane which resulted in a firm landing. As the airplane rebounded from the firm landing the spoilers deployed resulting in a nose high attitude. In an effort to correct for the nose high attitude, the captain and FO pushed forward on their respective sidesticks.
The FO stated that the ground spoiler deployment coinciding with the firm touchdown resulted in an airplane nose-up pitch attitude. As a result, the pitch attitude increased until the tail struck the runway. After the tailstrike, the remainder of the landing and landing rollout were normal with no risk of runway overrun or excursion.
How could something like this happen?!
I’m hoping some airline pilots can provide perspective here. Mistakes happen, so I’m not surprised that a tail strike could occur. What I am surprised by is how this situation was handled after the fact. Presumably the pilots of this flight knew they had a tail strike, as the NTSB reports that the area of damage was 19 feet long.
With that in mind:
- Did the pilots not report this incident to United immediately? If they did, wouldn’t it be standard procedure to perform a thorough inspection of the aircraft, which presumably couldn’t be done during a quick turnaround?
- When the pilots on the seven subsequent flights performed their walk around of the aircraft prior to departure, did none of them raise any concerns about this damage? Or was the damage so big that pilots doing their inspections just assumed “someone” else already knew about this and signed off on it?
I hope I’m missing something, because this doesn’t look good for the airline…
In March 2023, a United Airlines Airbus A320 suffered a trail strike while landing in Houston. The NTSB categorized this as an accident due to the substantial damage, as it covered an area 19 feet long, and caused damage to the aft pressure bulkhead and frames.
Yet somehow the plane remained in service for seven more flights, without any interruptions. The plane was then finally taken out of service, and hasn’t operated a passenger flight since.
What do you make of this United A320 situation?