Flying is one of the safest methods of transportation out there. Statistically speaking, you are one hundred times as likely to be killed driving your car to the airport than even be involved in an accident– let alone being killed in one– aboard an airplane.
However, sometimes incidents happen which make you wonder how badly things could have gone. One such incident occurred at Frankfurt International Airport a few days back. A Royal Air Maroc 737 bound for Casablanca was on its takeoff roll when the pilot executing the takeoff rotated– that is, pulled the aircraft’s nose up– prematurely, causing the plane to briefly lift off, then come back down, bounce along the runway for a short time and then finally take off. Here’s the video:
All pilots know that prematurely rotating an aircraft can lead to a stall (where the plane loses lift and can no longer remain airborne) if the plane isn’t brought back down. So, what happened and why did the pilots bring the nose up too soon?
Some have proposed that the pilots extend the flaps far enough and thereby didn’t have sufficient lift to take off when they brought the nose up, or that the pilots simply made a miscalculation regarding at what speed they were supposed to rotate the aircraft at and tried to climb out at too low a speed. Whatever actually occurred, at least the pilots brought the plane back down instead of continuing to climb, which would, in all likelihood, have resulted in a stall and led to disaster.
While the exact cause of the incident remains unknown, what is even more mysterious is how Royal Air Maroc handled the incident. After the video of the failed takeoff became public, Royal Air Maroc published the following statement:
Following dissemination of false information about flight AT-811 of July 23rd, Frankfurt – Casablanca, we wish to clarify that Frankfurt tower advised the captain of our flight in question of possible wake turbulence as result of a simultaneous landing of an A330. As result the captain performed a maneuver to accelerate in order to achieve speeds which permitted safe takeoff.
Okay… that doesn’t make sense on so many levels. Firstly, I don’t get how prematurely rotating and bouncing along the runway means you accelerate faster than you would executing a normal takeoff. Secondly, and most importantly, prematurely rotating has nothing to do with avoiding wake turbulence– absolutely nothing.
For those of you who don’t know, wake turbulence is an area of rough air made by an aircraft as it moves through the air. When a plane encountered another aircraft’s wake turbulence while taking off, it can cause problems: since aircraft are typically at lower speeds and low to ground when climbing out, there is less space to recover from changes in altitude caused by wake turbulence. Several fatal crashes have been caused by wake turbulence, leading to the creation of rules regarding separation of aircraft such that the wake turbulence can dissipate before another aircraft flies through it. Wake turbulence usually goes away after a few minutes, meaning that the aircraft taking off behind the one which generated the wake turbulence can take off smoothly after holding on the runway for a short time.
That is how you combat wake turbulence, not by pulling the nose up too soon, nearly stalling out the aircraft, then bouncing along the runway before finally taking off. For Royal Air Maroc to say this is dishonest, weird, and, honestly, a pretty crappy way to respond to a problem. Instead of just saying, “Yeah, we think the pilots may have made a mistake and we’re looking into it,” they decided to come up with a defensive and, in the end, nonsensical response that says nothing about what actually happened.