The Hardest Landing Ever Made
On Saturday, September 2nd, I had the honor of making the hardest landing I have ever had. There has not been a landing that has come close to that one in my 26 years of flying jets. It all started out that morning when we showed up at JFK and saw white caps on the waves out in the bay, where normally it is calm water. When we taxied out and were waiting in line for takeoff, we had a ball watching our fellow pilots landing on the parallel runway. The winds were horrific, our airspeed indicators were reading 35 to 40 miles and hour and we were stopped with our parking brakes set. The crosswinds were at the limits for landing and the pilots were working hard to get their machines on the ground. Most of them were flying angled into the wind until they were within a few hundred feet or less above the ground, then they would use their rudder to align the nose with the runway and dig a wing into the wind to hold it in place until landing. Easier said than done. “Did you see that”, my copilot yelled as a 747 rocked its left wing below the comfort zone. They landed seconds later and pretty hard at that. One after another they kept coming, rocking back and forth, noses swinging to align, tires giving up rubber in large puffs of smoke, reversers screaming and throwing huge amounts of water up and over the wings. “Glad we won’t come back to this”, I said to the copilot. We were witnessing the remnants of a hurricane and the cyclonic energy still within it. The storm was moving fast and we were getting back into JFK in about 8 hours. The storm system was predicted to have moved north by that time. I was very wrong.
Upon our return we hit turbulence as soon as we entered the clouds. The poor passengers would have been more comfortable in a paint can getting shaken at the local hardware store. We were vectored for a precision instrument approach to runway 4 Right. We broke out of the weather 500 feet above the ground. As soon as we were below the weather I immediately noticed the runway was not where it should have been, which was somewhat in front of me. The autopilot had angled into the wind to keep the airplanes track aligned with the runway which was about 35 degrees off to my left. All I could say was “Oh man, this is gonna be ugly.” The copilot was silent. I started concentrating on the conditions, runway, winds, airspeed, descent rate, my ships configuration. As we were going through 300 feet our windshear warning system came on with visual (red and yellow windshear lights) and aural (a computer generated man’s voice yelling WINDSHEAR!) warnings. I had been watching the airspeed fluctuate about ten knots and I had added 20 knots to my final approach speed. I was now seeing airspeed 20 knots less than it should have been. I immediately executed a standard windshear escape procedure, which is slamming the throttles to the full forward position, disconnecting the autoflight systems and manually raising the nose 15 degrees or more nose high. You maintain this watching your airspeed so you don’t stall; until you are satisfied you have escaped from the windshear. To the passengers in back it is not a fun experience unless you are the type who loves the scariest rides at Magic Mountain or jumping out of an airplane holding on to the person who actually has the parachute on. From nose down 4 degrees to nose up 15 or so makes an instant pitch up of 20 degrees with the engines going from a low power state to way more power than you would feel during a takeoff. Both of us were pretty busy during the escape as I was concentrating on flying and the copilot was busy calling out critical speed and altitude numbers. The tower controller saw us go around and wanted to know what was going on. “Tell him to standby”, I said. Once we were sure we had escaped the copilot made the radio call telling the tower why we went around. Once they knew it was due to windshear they stopped all approaches to that runway. We leveled off and started getting ourselves ready for another approach to a parallel runway. I made a public address to the passengers and told them we had to go around as I determined it was unsafe to land in the winds at that time, we were coming back around for another approach to another runway, and I would have them safely on the ground in fifteen minutes. Every flight is made with extra fuel on board to cover many potential problems with weather, etc. Our fuel was where it should have been but if we could not accomplish the next approach safely, I would have had to divert to another airport. I called the lead flight attendant and told her I had nothing to add from the public address and did she have any questions. She was ready for whatever I would throw at her. At this point we reprogrammed our flight computers for a different runway and approach, accomplished the standard briefings and checklists. About 10 minutes later I descended out of the overcast looking at the runway sideways. The conditions seemed worse that the first time. I disconnected the autopilot and hand flew the aircraft getting a feel for the air we were flying through.
Under these conditions I land in a slight wing down attitude touching the upwind wheel down a second or so before the down wind wheel. At about 100 feet above the ground I swing the nose parallel to the runway and dig the upwind wing into the wind to keep from drifting and to stay centered on the runway. This is a flying maneuver as you are flying to the ground, power up till you touch down. I could not believe how far to the left I had to swing my nose. The winds were right at the crosswind limit for the airplane, 29 knots. I dug my right wing into the wind at about 50 feet, everything looked good. As my right wheel touched the spoilers started to deploy. When the aircraft senses weight on its wheels, several things happen automatically, one of which is the spoiler panels on top of the wings deploy. This greatly reduces the lift on the wings and plays a large part of the landing sequence. During auto deployment of the spoilers only half of them deploy, the reason being is that if they all deployed too much lift would be lost and the aircraft would drop like a rock. There have been instances where the nose gear has been damaged by doing this. Back to my landing where it was all coming together quickly. The right wheels touched down and the auto spoilers started to deploy. I was still flying the aircraft and lowering my wing to put the left gear down when all of a sudden the copilot manually deployed all of the spoilers. He should not have done this at that moment. The airplane lost enough lift to drop the left gear and nose gear to the ground in a loud banging smack. At that moment I had no idea that he had done that as I was looking out the window and down the centerline of the runway. The airplane oscillated from the jarring landing and with maximum braking selected came to a lurching stop. I exited the runway as soon as I could and came to a complete stop waiting for instructions from the ground controllers. Because of our wind shear report the airport was being turned around to use other runways and we got stuck behind at least 50 airplanes trying to get to our gate. It took over and hour to get to our gate. I called the flight attendants and asked them if everyone was OK. Not surprisingly several passengers were scared to death and wanted to be anywhere but on that damn plane. Amazingly all of the passengers and flight attendants took the hard landing as a great landing under terrible conditions. I asked the lead flight attendant if there were any sets of false teeth piled up against the cockpit door as a landing as hard as that had to have knocked them out of the passengers mouths. I was telling my copilot that I just was not expecting to land so hard and that the entire landing seemed good until the last second. He then admitted to deploying the spoilers at the wrong time. We talked about the whole incident and what we could have done better or different. By the time we got to the gate I was finished debriefing. I went back to say goodbye to the passengers immediately. I always say goodbye whether it was a great landing or a bad one. I have never seen people so happy to get off an airplane….ever! An elderly women came up to me, grabbed my hands and kissed them and in Spanish said, “My god captain, my god, thank you for bringing me to the ground.” What the hell do you say to that? I just smiled. Everyone seemed thankful. A man came up to me and said something so fast in Spanish I am not sure if he thanked me or threatened me with my life if I ever did that to him again. Incredibly one man walked by with a sleeping boy in his arms. I asked him if he had been sleeping the whole time and he said he had been. It was in that moment that the man walked off the airplane holding his son I once again felt that enormous responsibility that goes with my wings. When things go wrong in flight and pilots are concentrating on a solution to the problems unfolding, we stay focused on what is front of us not behind us. That is why I go back and say goodbye, to see the faces that trust me to do the best job I can for them. That night the storm broke and blue skies returned the next day. I walked to a small museum in town that was displaying some paintings by Gustav Klimt. The museum was closed for the holiday. I walked down 5th avenue and heard the organ playing in St Patrick’s cathedral. A few hours later I was pulling up into the sky off of runway 31L at JFK doing a nonstop to LAX. It was an uneventful flight and the long sunset was spectacular. Be Safe, FlyGuy.