United A320 Had Accident, Flew Seven More Times Before Being Grounded

United A320 Had Accident, Flew Seven More Times Before Being Grounded

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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…

Bottom line

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?

Conversations (25)
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  1. SMR Guest

    It is possibly that from the flight deck the tail strike went unnoticed. The biggest shocker is no one during any walk arounds saw the 19 foot abrasion. Flight crews are required to complete a pre flight physical inspection.

  2. fod Member

    koggerj you’re a disgrace.

  3. David H Guest

    This is incredibly offensive and racist. @Ben, this person should be banned from posting - at the very least the comment should be taken down.

    1. Bill Guest

      @David H, geez take a deep breath

    2. Heathrow_LHR Guest

      Why take it down? Let it stand, to showcase another mediocre whiteguy mad because he has a tiny D and even smaller job prospects.

    3. Matt Guest

      I agree with Heathrow. Let the world see how the mediocre white men feel threatened.

    4. Sandy Guest

      Agreed, please remove this.

  4. polarbear Gold

    Maybe a nitpicking - but I believe in this case tailstrike should be classified as incident?

  5. AG Guest

    Yet United wil probably not have its safety rating reduced for this. For a foreign airline it would have been the first reaction.

  6. S Gold

    Here are the pilot statements if that helps. For what it's worth, I find the captain's and FO's decision to classify it as a "very firm" landing instead of a "hard" landing understandable. Scroll down to "Flight Crew Statements" https://data.ntsb.gov/Docket?ProjectID=106964

    Basically, based on discussions with the FAs and how the landing ended up, they classified it as a firm landing not a hard landing and did not suspect tail damage. There's also this from...

    Here are the pilot statements if that helps. For what it's worth, I find the captain's and FO's decision to classify it as a "very firm" landing instead of a "hard" landing understandable. Scroll down to "Flight Crew Statements" https://data.ntsb.gov/Docket?ProjectID=106964

    Basically, based on discussions with the FAs and how the landing ended up, they classified it as a firm landing not a hard landing and did not suspect tail damage. There's also this from the first officer:

    "I attempted to perform a post-flight walk-around, however, I was not allowed down to the ramp, as it was an international return flight and U.S. Customs had the plane cordoned off for inspection."

    Doesn't explain subsequent misses, but could explain why nothing after this specific flight from these two.

    1. Tim Dunn Diamond

      also, does not explain why the co-pilot did not alert someone that there was reason to inspect the aircraft and allow the people that could access the aircraft do so at the appropriate time.
      Walking away is inexcusable.

    2. S Gold

      Maybe the FO did, or at least noted it somewhere. I don't know what the procedures would call for, but even if he didn't I don't get how multiple crews missed the damage. Could have been as few as one more crew or 3-4 more crews depending on how that plane was scheduled. Pilots don't want to die and aren't idiots, so not sure how possible multiple of them missed it?

      I would hope that internally there's a review on that part.

  7. IrishAlan Diamond

    The only remotely reasonable explanation for this would be that much like when you drop a glass and get a small hairline fracture in it, the initial tail strike damage wasn’t that visible? Then the pounding of repeated landings worsened it and made it more visible?

    Any other explanation would imply either an intentional cover up or a need to fire some grossly incompetent pilots and maintenance staff.

  8. Schlange Guest

    JAL 123. Tailstrike damaged the aft pressure bulkhead, leading to an eventual explosive decompression, blowing the vertical stabilizer off the aircraft and damaging all four of the aircraft’s hydraulic systems (747). Flight crashed 32 minutes later, 4 survivors rescued.

    You’d think a tailstrike would at least warrant attention for the aft pressure bulkhead. Hell, when I worked at Lufthansa we had an A340-600 land too hard. For *that* they cancelled the flight and pulled the...

    JAL 123. Tailstrike damaged the aft pressure bulkhead, leading to an eventual explosive decompression, blowing the vertical stabilizer off the aircraft and damaging all four of the aircraft’s hydraulic systems (747). Flight crashed 32 minutes later, 4 survivors rescued.

    You’d think a tailstrike would at least warrant attention for the aft pressure bulkhead. Hell, when I worked at Lufthansa we had an A340-600 land too hard. For *that* they cancelled the flight and pulled the black box to send to Frankfurt for analysis. Hard landings would happen more often than tailstrikes…they should have looked into this on day 1.

    1. Chris Guest

      It was the repair that was wrong and faulty.
      Not the tailstrike.

  9. Syd Guest

    Not a fun read when you’re at a gate and boarding a UA flight in an hour lol.

    1. JB Guest

      Same here, except I'm flying round trip with UA today, and this is my first United flight in over a decade.

  10. Eskimo Guest

    Human after human failed to notice or report the situation.
    A chain of human errors. Something simply preventable by removing humans from the problem.

  11. Tim Dunn Diamond

    first, this accident represents a failure of multiple people and workgroups at United in recognizing and reporting this incident. Unless United can provide documentation that the pilots failed to report, then there is a systemic problem w/ internal controls. Even the flight attendants that sat in the rear jumpseats are bound to have known that there was a hard landing and likely could have heard the tail strike the runway. Rampers should have seen the...

    first, this accident represents a failure of multiple people and workgroups at United in recognizing and reporting this incident. Unless United can provide documentation that the pilots failed to report, then there is a systemic problem w/ internal controls. Even the flight attendants that sat in the rear jumpseats are bound to have known that there was a hard landing and likely could have heard the tail strike the runway. Rampers should have seen the damage; WN rampers are required to do aircraft checks.
    Second, there is no assuming that aircraft damage has been reported. It either is documented in the logbook and maintenance has signed off on it or it has not been reported.
    Third, the plane was not involved in a major accident because the A320 is built as well as it is - which is not elevating it above any other type of aircraft.

    There has been a frightening increase in erosion of the mechanisms that have allowed the US aviation system to be as safe as it is. In light of other United pilot related operational incidents, you have to wonder how long it will be for the FAA to open an investigation of United - if that isn't happening already.

  12. betterbub Diamond

    It flew 7 flights no issue, good enough to put back into service

    1. Heathrow_LHR Guest

      Sarcasm doesn't travel well over the internet, so we're going to assume you aren't half as stupid as this comment makes you out to be.

      Ask JAL and China Airlines how well ignoring a tailstrike goes.

    2. Tom Guest

      Absolutely not the same as it is ok for flight .

  13. Maryland Guest

    Questioning who finally noticed the damage? Another pilot? Or someone else just said " Hey look at that" ?

    1. Santos Guest

      Yes, you would think a member of the flight deck crew would be performing a walk-around before one of the next *seven* departures and notice the damage.

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Schlange Guest

JAL 123. Tailstrike damaged the aft pressure bulkhead, leading to an eventual explosive decompression, blowing the vertical stabilizer off the aircraft and damaging all four of the aircraft’s hydraulic systems (747). Flight crashed 32 minutes later, 4 survivors rescued. You’d think a tailstrike would at least warrant attention for the aft pressure bulkhead. Hell, when I worked at Lufthansa we had an A340-600 land too hard. For *that* they cancelled the flight and pulled the black box to send to Frankfurt for analysis. Hard landings would happen more often than tailstrikes…they should have looked into this on day 1.

3
Tim Dunn Diamond

first, this accident represents a failure of multiple people and workgroups at United in recognizing and reporting this incident. Unless United can provide documentation that the pilots failed to report, then there is a systemic problem w/ internal controls. Even the flight attendants that sat in the rear jumpseats are bound to have known that there was a hard landing and likely could have heard the tail strike the runway. Rampers should have seen the damage; WN rampers are required to do aircraft checks. Second, there is no assuming that aircraft damage has been reported. It either is documented in the logbook and maintenance has signed off on it or it has not been reported. Third, the plane was not involved in a major accident because the A320 is built as well as it is - which is not elevating it above any other type of aircraft. There has been a frightening increase in erosion of the mechanisms that have allowed the US aviation system to be as safe as it is. In light of other United pilot related operational incidents, you have to wonder how long it will be for the FAA to open an investigation of United - if that isn't happening already.

3
betterbub Diamond

It flew 7 flights no issue, good enough to put back into service

3
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