About That Terrifying Bagram Crash Video

We don't know for sure, but at face value it looks like an aerodynamic stall.

By now you've seen the tragic footage of a Boeing 747 cargo plane crashing soon after takeoff from Bagram airport in Afghanistan. 

What does this look like, from an aviation perspective? To get the caveats out of the way:
  - I don't know first-hand that this is an authentic video, although it has been publicized widely without debunking that I have seen;
 - It is certainly possible that there are causal factors that this video doesn't reveal, from sabotage to some external force somehow not shown on screen;
 - And whatever else you can think of.

Still, if you ask what this looks like, the answer is: It looks like an aerodynamic stall.

As explained in some previous posts about crashes, here and here, an aerodynamic stall is nothing like a normal car-engine stall. The simplest way to envision it is to think of bicycling up a very steep hill in high gear. At some point, you won't be able to keep the bicycle's speed up -- and since a bike needs to be moving forward to stay upright, at that point it will fall over.

So too with an airplane. Its wings have to move through the air at a certain speed, conveniently known as "airspeed," to generate the lift that keeps the plane aloft. If they go too slowly, which often* comes from climbing too steeply, at some point they stop generating enough lift -- and then like a bike going too slowly up a too-steep hill they will "fall over" and the plane will come out of the sky.

That is what we seem to see in the video above, starting just a few seconds in. Every pilot has done "stall recovery" drills, in which you point the airplane too steeply upward, until eventually it stalls, noses over, and begins to fall. Then you recover in the prescribed way. But usually you do these drills a few thousand feet up into the sky -- to avoid exactly the fate shown in the video.

Why would an experienced flight crew get into this trouble -- if that is what occurred? Again, I don't know for sure, but one possibility would be "cargo shift." Suppose the cargo in a heavily laden plane was not securely strapped down, so that as the plane accelerated for takeoff, the cargo might shift toward the tail. That could make the plane too tail-heavy to fly. (To be more precise, it could shift the plane's center of gravity outside the acceptable flight envelope.) In general, a pilot increases a plane's airspeed -- and avoids the risk of a stall -- by pointing its nose down. The weight loaded into a plane is carefully calculated to be sure it is appropriately balanced between nose and tail so that the pilot can point the nose up and down as needed. If the tail became too heavy, essentially making the plane a see-saw with too much weight on one side, the pilot would be helpless to avoid a stall and crash.

A stall, perhaps from shifting cargo, is what this looks like. We'll learn more about what actually occurred.
* For the aviation crowd: yes, I realize that the technical way to put the point is that the angle of attack has become too high, which can occur even when the plane is not climbing.

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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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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