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The Jetstar 'Texting While Landing' Incident, and the Cessna Descent Into the Gulf

(Please see update below.) Thanks for a slew of messages and queries on the two unrelated air-safety items in the news today. These involve an episode two years ago in Singapore, and one today over the Gulf of Mexico. The main points:

1) OK, Now I See How a Mobile Phone Could Be Dangerous in Flight. This case, from 2010, is easier to explain but harder to understand. According to Australian news reports, the crew of an Airbus A320 had to abort a final approach, and "go around" just before landing, because its captain was distracted by beeps on his mobile phone -- and didn't notice that he had failed to put the landing gear down. The flight was on Jetstar, the discount sibling to Qantas, and went from Darwin to Singapore. FWIW, my wife and I had gone on that very Jetstar route not long before.

The account in Australia's The Age, based on an investigation by Australia's counterpart to the NTSB, is fairly dramatic:

Somewhere between 2500 feet and 2000 feet, the captain's mobile phone started beeping with incoming text messages, and the captain twice did not respond to the co-pilot's requests.

The co-pilot looked over and saw the captain "preoccupied with his mobile phone", investigators said. The captain told investigators he was trying to unlock the phone to turn it off, after having forgotten to do so before take-off.

At 1000 feet, the co-pilot scanned the instruments and felt "something was not quite right" but could not spot what it was.

At this stage the captain still did not realise the landing gear had not been lowered, and neither pilot went through their landing checklist.

At 720 feet, a cockpit alert flashed and sounded to warn that the wheels still hadn't been lowered.

At 650 feet, the captain moved the undercarriage lever "instinctively" but then a "too low" ground-warning alarm sounded as the plane sunk through 500 feet, indicating the landing gear was not fully extended and locked.

This is easy to "explain" in the same way a texting-while-driving car crash would be. Every pilot who has trained in a retractable-gear plane has heard a zillion warnings and reminders about the constant danger of forgetting to lower the landing gear. (One reason the kind of plane I fly, the Cirrus SR series, has "fixed" landing gear is precisely to avoid this source of risk.) As the old chestnut has it, there are two kinds of retractable-gear pilots: Those who have forgotten to put the gear down, and those who will.

ThreeGreen.jpgPrecisely because of this danger, there are countless drills, mnemonic devices, cockpit alert systems, "flow checks," and other safeguards meant to increase the likelihood that you will have "three green" before landing. These are three green lights showing that the wheels on the nose and the right and left wings are all down and locked. I've never been in an A320 cockpit during a fight, but here's more or less the idea of how the three-green indicator would look in an A320. Those green triangles would be glowing and hard to ignore.
And of course all pilots are supposed to use checklists -- above all two-person crews of professional airline pilots. They obviously didn't do so in this case, and that obviously looks bad for them and the airline. At least they recognized the problem before it was really too late and went all the way down for a "gear up" landing. These need not be fatal, or even dangerous, but they certainly mess up the airplane and cause a lot of trouble.

And, of course, the incident had nothing to do with a passenger using a Kindle or other "device with an on-off switch" while in flight. I'm sure the captain is the first to admit that: he should simply have ignored the phone and any other distraction while he was landing, and of course both pilots should have used the checklist. In the end, they were embarrassed and may be disciplined, but no one was hurt.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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