Debunking the ‘scary landings’ video

Among the “viraliest” of the viral videos being picked up by “news” sites in the last few weeks is this video showing “scary” and “dangerous” landings in jetliners. Commenter Jim Shapiro forwards the latest victim of the supposition, the Huffington Post.

Said the Huffington Post:

The planes, from Emirates to Thomas Cook, approach the runway at odd angles to compensate for the high winds, which were gusting up to 55 knots on the day, Bogdan says.

Landing (and takeoff) is statistically riskier than other parts of the flight, ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ pilot Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger’ told us over the summer, due to cloud height, wind and visibility, among other things. Now we see why.

“Look at these impossible landings,” a TV anchor on WCCO declared the other morning while showing the video.

Let’s analyze what’s really happening here. While it’s flying, a plane doesn’t move against the wind, it’s in the wind. If the winds are blowing 55 mph across a runway (it’s not here although the suggestion is that it is, but that’s another discussion), the plane is also moving at 55 mph across a runway . That’s not a good thing.

What the pilots of these planes are actually doing is making very professional and safe approaches. They’re turning the nose into the wind — against the wind, really — in order to align with the the centerline of the runway…drifting neither left nor right. Where you do see the plane drifting, is the pilot calculating how much of an angle is necessary to align the jetliner’s track with the centerline of the runway.

But, of course, you can’t actually land that way, so shortly before touchdown, the pilot uses the plane’s rudder to align the nose with the runway, so as not to put any “side load” on the landing gear. Every plane has a maximum “crosswind component” to help pilots calculate whether a landing can be made safety given a certain amount of wind and the angle at which it intersects the runway. So what you see above, while an example of pilot skill, is not luck at work.

If a pilot needs more time to get the angle right, he/she simply “goes around” and tries the approach again. Look up on any day with a light breeze the next time a small plane flies over your house, and the chances are the nose of the plane is not aligned with the path (heading) of the plane. Same thing.

Think of it this way: You’re crossing a river with a canoe. If you point the canoe to the spot on the opposite shore where you intend to disembark, the current will carry you downstream. So, you point the canoe upstream of where you want to land and between your heading and the current, the result is usually a straight line to your intended “touchdown.” With any luck when you get to the other side, there’s nobody there with a camera to tell you how dangerous, scary, or impossible it was.

  • I see now why you Tweeted this as a “nonsense” video. And I did notice that the pilots were straitening out just before touchdown, just wasn’t able to put it together.

  • Jamie

    Very interesting and informative. Makes me have even more respect and admiration for pilots. Thanks.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Bob -Thanks for the informed and informative response. It seemed a bit contrived/sensationalist to me, but I know a minimal amount about avionics and aerodynamics, and thought you might be able to elucidate and confirm my suspicions.

  • Peter

    Also, the extreme telephoto lens really distorts the distances involved, and makes it look like the planes are landing more vertically than horizontally.

  • Tyler

    We had an exceptional landing at Midway last week – lots of little bumps and crossbreezes, but the amazing thing to me was the transition from flying to rolling. We didn’t feel a thing; not a bump or a sound. I’ve never experienced anything like that, and wonder why more pilots aren’t capable of pulling something like that off.

  • Conner

    Watching that video I was honestly surprised anyone thought those were bad landings. Looked good to me. Then again once thought I wanted to be a pilot so maybe I have seen enough and read enough to know how these things work. But thanks for the explanation Bob, newsrooms should learn to contact you before airing airline related news.

    And Tyler, it’s funny, I flew a lot last year and the smoothest landing I experienced was in the middle of a snowstorm in Minneapolis. Was like landing on a cloud, it was amazing.

  • Ed

    Regarding the Midway landing, there could have been a strong headwind which would provide a much slower ground speed when touching down. Definitely skill is required, but often times luck plays a part when “greaser” smooth landings are a result.

    As to the actual moment of touching down in an airliner, they carry quite a bit of power during the approach and then reduce the power several seconds before touchdown. I would guess they do this a little earlier and aim for a somewhat firm touchdown in gusty conditions. If the headwind were to increase as this is done then you might wind up with a softer landing.

  • Jeff

    Those pilots are amazing. It is very impressive how well they control those fantastically heavy planes with such grace!