The Tale of the Tail Strike: Damaged Aircraft Crosses Ocean — and No One Realized It?
The rear end of an Airbus A330-300 aircraft operated as flight 435 by Lufthansa was reportedly damaged after its tail allegedly hit the runway upon take-off at the O’Hare International Airport in Chicago last month — and the aircraft traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in Munich with no incident.
Amazingly, neither members of the flight crew nor the passengers aboard the aircraft noticed or realized that anything had happened.
The aircraft — which supposedly sustained significant structural damage, as several parts of its fuselage became loose — was removed from service.
The Bundesstelle für Flugunfalluntersuchung — also known as the BFU, or the Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation in Germany — reportedly recorded the incident as a “severe fault” and is working with Lufthansa in currently investigating this incident.
Incidents similar to this one apparently happen two or three times each year to German aircraft, according to an investigator. However, incidents such as this rarely cause significant damage or endanger the passengers and flight crew members — especially when they occur at the time the aircraft takes off from the runway.
Standard operating procedure for Airbus aircraft would have required the crew to avoid pressurizing the cabin and land at a nearby airport as soon as possible to assess the damage — if they had noticed that something had happened. In fact, Airbus gives guidelines on how to prevent tail strikes from occurring at both take-off and landing, as approximately 25 percent of reported tail strikes occur at take-off; while approximately 65 percent of reported tail strikes occur upon landing the aircraft.
This is apparently not the first time a tail strike was not noticed, nor the first time a tail strike has occurred on a commercial aircraft:
- In 2009, the tail of a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 aircraft operated by SAS Scandinavian Airlines reportedly was in contact with the runway as it took off in Gdansk on its way to Copenhagen, resulting in sparks flying from the bottom of the tail of the aircraft.
- A Boeing 777 aircraft operated by Continental Airlines reportedly suffered from a tail strike upon departure from Newark International Airport on its way to Hong Kong in 2005 — but it was noticed in this case, as fuel was dumped and the aircraft returned to Newark. The aircraft was supposedly removed from service for at least a month while it was being repaired by Boeing. The captain of that flight was reportedly urged to retire almost immediately after that incident.
- Upon landing in Denver on May 4, 2009, an Airbus A320-200 aircraft operated by Northwest Airlines as flight 557 from Minneapolis reportedly sustained significant damage when it suffered from a tail strike. Three people were reportedly transported to the hospital for medical treatment, and the aircraft was out of service for approximately three months.
- The pilot and first officer were reportedly grounded when their Airbus A340-300 aircraft operated by Cathay Pacific suffered minor damage after an apparent tail strike occurred because the aircraft departed too steeply from the runway in Auckland — but the flight supposedly continued on to its destination in Hong Kong, as the incident was not considered classified as a reportable accident.
- As it departed from the international airport in Sydney on November 9, 2000, a Boeing 777 aircraft operated by Singapore Airlines as flight 232 supposedly suffered from a tail strike but reportedly continued on to Singapore instead of returning for a structural inspection.
Although there does not seem to be any cause for concern, I do wonder what are the statistics concerning tail strikes in the commercial aviation industry, as an initial search did not yield conclusive results.