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A pilot's nightmare? Landing gear nothing, how about a missing crew meal?

Posted by Patrick Smith  July 29, 2013 07:06 PM

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Last week, a Southwest Airlines 737 suffered a collapse of its nose gear upon landing at La Guardia airport. Ten people were injured.

Investigators are now saying that the jet’s gear may have failed not because of a malfunction, but because the pilots managed to land nose-first, causing it to bend backwards, seriously damaging the gear assembly and avionics bay.

According to reports, the jet hit the runway at an angle of about 3 degrees nose-down. That might not sound like much, but even a steep descent is typically made at no more than 3 degrees or so. And any amount of nose-down pitch on touchdown is a problem. A correct landing attitude, while it varies with wind and other factors, is almost always a few degrees nose-up.

Why is it bad for a plane to land on its nose gear? Well, why is it bad for a bird to land on its face? And if, indeed, this is what happened at LGA, the question shifts to why and how the pilots found themselves in such an unusual predicament.

It remains true, however, that although landing gear issues are frightening to many people, seldom if ever are they going to result in a crash. Some are more serious than others - for example, the belly landing of a Boeing 767 in Poland two years ago, which I wrote about here - but in general, they're pretty innocuous, and from a pilot's perspective they are way, way down the list of nightmare scenarios.

This is why, when the Southwest story first broke, I tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away. I find gear problems to be, well, a little boring and not worth a whole lot of attention. But the press was in a bit of a frenzy (so it goes when there's an airplane accident, no matter how minor, in the heart of the world's hungriest media market), and I felt obliged to chime in.

Hopefully the result wasn't to cranky or condescending. You can read the full story in Slate magazine.

And perhaps now you're wondering: If pilots don't worry about landing gear problems, what do they worry about? What are those nightmare scenarios?

That's tough to answer. So much of our job relies on preparation - "the management of contingency," as I put it in Chapter 6 of my book (whatever that means exactly), and we are trained to handle any number of malfunctions and anomalies, from engine failures and fires to minor glitches in this or that onboard subsystem.

But pilots don't "worry" about particular problems - other than their airline going bankrupt or the caterers forgetting to load the crew meals. The job doesn't allow it, frankly. If the risk of something is high enough to draw that much attention and mental energy, something is already seriously wrong. Flying is too safe for that.

Not that we don't carry certain things in the back of our minds. These, however, tend not to be the sorts of things the average passenger might think about - such as the wing falling off or turbulence flipping the plane upside down. Situations that I might "worry" about are, for example, fire in a cargo compartment, or a turkey buzzard flying into an engine at 160 knots during a maximum weight takeoff.

Of course, we've got extinguishing systems in the cargo holds, and a plane can fly just fine with a failed engine. So maybe the lesson here is that even the worst thing that can happen is unlikely to be disastrous.

So, crew meals. It's all about the crew meals.

Yes, we do get fed - at least on longer flights. It varies airline to airline, but as a general rule the pilots receive a catered meal on flights longer than six hours or so. On long-haul flights it's usually the same meal served to passengers in first or business class - yes, including the appetizers, soup, and dessert.

At my carrier, on international flights, the lead flight attendant will give us a menu prior to departure, and we'll list our entree preferences. Passengers have first choice; we get what's left over.

The best crew meal I ever had was on a flight out of Mumbai a couple of years ago. The worst was a Thanksgiving Day meal in 1999, when I was flying cargo planes for DHL.

It was customary on Thanksgiving to stock the galley with a special holiday meal, and the three of us were hungry and much looking forward to it. The trouble was, the caterers forgot to bring the food. By the time we noticed, we were only minutes from departure and they had split for the day. I thought I was going to cry when I opened the door and saw only a can of Diet Sprite and a matchbook-size packet of Tillamook cheese. The best we could do was get one of the guys upstairs to drive out to McDonald's. He came back with three big bags of burgers and fries, tossing them up to us just as they were pulling the stairs away.

Who eats fast food on Thanksgiving? Pilots in a pinch.

Not that all of my holidays aloft were so disappointing. One of my all-time favorite flying memories, in fact, takes us back to Thanksgiving Day, 1993. I was captain of a Dash-8 turboprop flying from Boston to Halifax, Nova Scotia. My first officer was the always cheerful and gregarious Kathy Martin. (Kathy was one of very few pilots I've met who'd been flight attendants at an earlier point in their career.) The Dash-8 had no galley, but Kathy had the foresight and kindness to bring a cooler from home, overflowing with food: huge turkey sandwiches, a whole blueberry pie, and tubs of mashed potatoes.

We assembled the plates and containers across the folded-down jumpseat. The pie we passed to the flight attendant, who handed out slices to passengers.

Portions of this story originally appeared in the magazine Salon.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist, author, and host of In his spare time, he has visited more than 80 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville. More »

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