An interesting day in Rome which highlights the complexity of modern airport and airspace operations.
Not that landing an Airbus A320 with a landing gear issue is a simple job, however: just ask the crew of Wizz Air 3141 who arrived on final approach to Rome Ciampino airport this morning (June 8th 2013) to find their normal procedures rudely interrupted by a warning that the left undercarriage was unsafe. Further preliminary information can be found at http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=20130608-0.
I was operating to the other, larger, Rome airport – Fiumicino – just prior to 8am. By this point, the crew had already followed the published procedure for a missed approach from Ciampino in order to troubleshoot their landing gear problem, flying around in circles, generating options. But what else was happening as a result of this?
Firstly, the Wizz Air had decided to divert from single-runway Ciampino to one of the runways at Fiumicino as it was longer. This meant that all inbound traffic was now re-routed to the other, parallel, runway. Delays began to form as more aircraft entered the system than there was capacity for with only one runway in use. (Normally, Fiumicino has a third runway dedicated to take-off, however this is currently under reconstruction.)
On the ground, the fire services were diverted to the Wizz Air runway; standard practice in an emergency situation but it meant that they were unavailable elsewhere on the airport. Therefore, aircraft fuelling had to stop. Delays on the ramp now also begin to form: planes unable to fuel, can’t push back for their next flight, occupying parking stands due to be used by incoming aircraft… which continue to land.
Ultimately, however, there is only a limited amount of fuel which can be burnt trying to resolve a problem like this in flight, and the length of the delay on the ground was limited by the needs of the Wizz Air to get on the ground in as controlled manner as possible. Once the situation was stable the fire services could, at least partly, be released back to their normal duties, after which normal operations continue, albeit with only one runway.
Regarding the issue of fuel management, this type of situation is particularly interesting, as it happens at the end of the flight when fuel is already nearing a minimum level. As pilots, we normally think of fuel as time – time to diagnose, generate options, decide on some course(s) of action and carry them out, considering as many possible sources of information as are available to assist us. In this case the crew were able to not only diagnose using their aircraft systems, but through information from ground observers during a low pass over runway 34R they knew their information was correct in the absence of being able to physically see the undercarriage. Then, rectification using checklists for additional attempts at lowering the gear, both normally and through a manual handcrank which allows gravity to pull the gear down, along with airborne maneuvering to try and swing the gear in to position through rocking the wings, climbing and descending sharply.
But ultimately, preparation had to be made for an uncertain landing, and this will have been talked through between the pilots, with the cabin crew, the passengers, ATC and, if possible, the airline themselves, with the very real possibility of an emergency evacuation on the runway. This could result in additional injuries, as passengers rapidly leave a large aircraft which is sitting at an angle in the middle of a tarmac runway.
Needless to say, these thoughts are stressful for all parties involved. But what if the crew had arrived with the bare minimum of fuel, and this process of troubleshooting and decision-making needed to take place under severe time pressure?
In that situation, the complexity of the environment, combined with the increase in stress, can lead to unnoticed mistakes and omissions. The safety margin for error absorption is reduced. So it makes sense to simplify wherever possible. This can be done by making decisions earlier in flight, when everything is going as planned and ATC is quieter, or even prior to leaving the ground in the first place. How much fuel – time – does our arrival fuel give us to troubleshoot any last-minute issues, such as landing gear or wing flaps which fail to work as planned? Where will we be needing to go to sort out any problems? Are we familiar enough with the area to know what options offer the highest appropriate margin of safety? How assertive will we have to be in order to use those options – what will we say when we have minimum fuel and need to divert to an alternate airport and ATC tell us to “stand by”?
Keep it simple. Keep it safe.