Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Hard landing, Wrong airport? Dial "AOG"

Headlines a week ago about the Southwest B-737 that landed at the wrong airport, six miles from the intended destination of Branson International. Passengers reported energetic braking to avoid running off the end, which would have sent the plane down a bluff and onto US-65 highway. The next day, after safety checks (hard braking can cause heat damage), and after police stopped traffic on the highway, the Boeing made an uneventful departure.  

Here's a photo of mechanics checking the landing gear (Photo: Valery Mosley, Springfield News-Leader for the AP):

The industry name for such work is AOG, short for Aircraft on Ground. In case of damage, AOG work requires a team of mechanics and engineers, and a depot that ships replacement parts on short notice.

One of the most dramatic AOG incidents in recent memory was the mistaken landing in 1997 of a Saudia Airlines B-747 at India's Tambaram Air Station, near Madras. The 747, which was scheduled to land at Chennai International, was carrying 330 passengers and their luggage and came to a halt with little room to spare (photo, Indian Express):

The airstrip in question was only for use by light training aircraft, and about 4,500 feet long. All the performance charts said Tambaram's runway was half that needed for a survivable takeoff. What to do?

During four days of intense and unhappy discussions between the airline and the Indian Air Force, which tallied damage and suspected espionage, technicians from Boeing and Saudia met at the scene. Options included: (1) pull the wings off and tow the fuselage to Chennai, where it would be further disassembled and flown in cargo jets to the Boeing factory; (2) abandon the airliner at the air base; or (3) fly it out in one piece.

The last would entail a good deal of risk, but experts determined that if the AOG team removed the air conditioning units, all passenger seats, and every gallon of fuel not needed for the short hop to Chennai, the plane could get off the ground.

And it worked. Saudia brought in its best pilot for the job -- Capt. Jam Joom -- waited for a strong headwind, and took off without incident (AFP article via Google News):


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