Wednesday, July 15, 2009

First go-around in a commercial airplane

Tuesday morning, about 7:30AM. I am half-awake in a window seat on the left-hand side of a Qantas Boeing 737-400 on approach to Brisbane airport. We just flew past the tip of North Stradbroke Island, and in a minute or two the airplane will touch down on runway 19. The landing gear goes down, soon followed by flaps. We make a left turn onto final. More flaps.

This is a beautiful Queensland winter morning, with high clouds and amazing visibility. I can see Brisbane CBD very clearly, and in the distance the towers of Swanbank power station, some 50km away. The sight brings back memories of screwing up majorly in this very area on a PPL navigation exercise about a year ago. But back to our story.

My seat is a perfect vantage point for observing the trailing edge of the left wing. We're now aligned with the runway. The flaps move down a little more and then stop. They're about half-way down, definitely not extended as they should be for landing. A few seconds pass and then we pitch up for a go-around. Some power is applied, but not full take-off power, or at least it doesn't sound like it. The rate of climb is moderate.

We make a series of left turns back to the Mud Island area. The captain makes an announcement saying that we went around because of a problem with the flight controls, that this is a routine procedure, no need to worry, we will be on the ground shortly, and sorry for the inconvenience. The flaps haven't moved at all since final. We come back for a very uneventful landing on 19.

As we taxi to the gate the flaps are still in the same partially extended position. They only come back up a few minutes after we reach the gate. The flaps actually come up very slowly, possibly because the backup electrical flap retraction mechanism was used, rather than the normal hydraulic one. That's my guess based on those notes, and I'll stop here with the armchair incident investigation.

As I was walking out of the narrowbody airplane I noticed the captain standing at the cockpit door saying goodbye to passengers, which is rather unusual for Qantas. I asked him if this was a flaps failure and he confirmed with a wink.

So that was all for the adventure. Nothing spectacular really. Sorry for indulging in Gonzo journalism, but that's la loi du genre. The fact that this was my first go-around ever on a commercial flight after hundreds of flights on airliners I guess should be taken as a testimony to the reliability of airline flying.

Speaking about journalism, I found this article about a similar incident on the same type of airplane in Alaska. They quote an FAA person as saying that they do not regard the failure of flaps to be a safety hazard. Which makes a lot of sense. Some airplanes do not have flaps at all. Student pilots perform flapless landings routinely. Flaps are a very convenient luxury.

I was momentarily impressed by how a local newspaper actually sought qualified technical advice when reporting about an aviation incident that didn't even involve injured passengers or a bent airplane. That was before I read the final two paragraphs, where they quote a local ham radio operator who describes the radio transmissions as "dramatic and alarming to hear" and offers a piece of definitive advice by saying "I would definitely be watching and questioning. I would be kind of apprehensive". I guess the opinion of the FAA person was too sensible to end an aviation story with.


Jeremy said...

Interesting story. I've been in a go-around, or maybe "missed approach" is a better term, in the US a few times. The time I can remember most clearly wasn't an approach to minimums or anything, my guess is it was more the approach was broken off when reported weather became above limits or something. So yours is a little more interesting - and therefore even more rare!

On a recent flight into YSSY from KLAX, on a Qantas B747, we made kind of a strange manuever - a 360-degree left orbit at about 2000 feet, only about 4-5 nm out from runway 34L. We got a good view of the Cronulla/Miranda area, and I was wondering how close we came to the Victor One route when at such a low altitude. Truly a reminder to remain OCTA when flying Victor 1!

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeremy, when you say V1, is it a visual tunnel? What you mean by OCTA?

Julien said...

@Anonymous: Yes, V1, i.e. "Victor One" is a VFR corridor over the water that starts north of Sydney Harbour and ends south of Cronulla, past the airport. It's at 500ft all along, i.e. goes under the approach path for runway 34 at Sydney International.

OCTA = Outside Of Controlled Airspace.