After a Boeing 737 operating as Flydubai Flight 981 crashed in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don Saturday, preliminary accounts suggested that the plane had clipped a wing or struck the ground with its tail while attempting to land in stormy weather. Indeed, in a story published later that day, RT.com quoted Rostov region governor Vasily Golubev as saying, “The plane was descending and then suddenly dived down. Experts say this was an air pocket that dragged the plane to the left of the runway center. And the plane debris were scattered to the left as well.” Obviously, there is no such thing as an “air pocket.” But it makes intuitive sense that a plane attempting to land in high, gusty winds might succumb to shear at low altitude and low airspeed as it nears touchdown. But this, it appears, is not what happened at all. Frequent contributor Victor Iannello has created a graphic based on ADS-B data transmitted by the plane during its final moments. What it shows is that the plane had descended to land, then aborted the landing and climbed, accelerating as it went. It had already gained 3000 feet altitude and reached a speed of 200 knots when it suddenly plummeted from the sky. Here’s the data in graph form:
This security-camera footage offers a visual sense of what happened:
— English Lugansk (@loogunda) March 21, 2016
What happened? Authorities on the scene have found the black boxes and hopefully will have answers soon. For the time being, some have speculated that the plane encountered severe windshear or a microburst, causing it to stall and plummet. But the plane’s descent was nose-down at high speed, so the pilot should have been able to at least attempt to pull up. Personally, I’m reminded of AA587, which crashed in 2001 on takeoff from Long Island after the pilot flying applied to much rudder after encountering wake turbulence from the plane ahead of him on climbout, causing the vertical stabilizer to rip off; the plane dived nearly vertically into the ground. If something similar happened here, parts of the tail should be found at some distance from the main wreckage. Another case that may offer parallels was Kenya Airways Flight 507, which crashed in 2007 while on climbout in bad weather. The pilot lost situational awareness while the autopilot was only partially engaged, the plane entered into an increasingly steep bank, and plunged into the ground. What’s different in the present case is that the plane impacted right on the runway it had been trying to climb away from, implying that it stayed on the same heading the whole time. (That is to say, it hadn’t gone into a roll.) Another unusual aspect of the case was the fact that the pilots had been holding for two hours before making a second landing attempt. I asked Phil Derner, an aircraft dispatcher and aviation expert, for his take. He replied:
For me, as a dispatcher, 1 hour is my max to let an aircraft of mine hold. It’s just a waste of gas; might as well divert and wait for conditions to improve. Shit, even fitting an additional 2 hours of holding fuel to a flight is tough as it is, and then to burn it away in a hold? Also, I only let my flights sit in a holding pattern if I think they WILL get it. If conditions don’t look to be improving right away, I won’t even have them hold…I divert and would rather have them wait it out on the ground. It saves gas, and is safer on the ground. But then again, I don’t know all of the conditions they were facing, what conditions were at their alternate airports, etc. There are so many variables and we just don’t have a lot of info, so it’s tough to determine or judge. But 2 hours….damn.
Meanwhile, on an unrelated topic, I might as well put up a picture of the latest piece of aircraft debris, this one found on a beach in South Africa. Not many details forthcoming yet, but it’s worth noting that MH370 was equipped with two Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engines.
A quick glance at there not-very-high-res images suggests that the piece is roughly similar in appearance to the two pieces recently found in Mozambique, though perhaps somewhat more discolored/weathered. Apparently the piece is on its way to Malaysia.
UPDATE: Here’s another picture that @Susie provided a link to in the comments section: