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Air Canada AC624 crash: 'Hard landing' too soft a term?

03/31/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/30/2015 05:59 EDT
No matter what you call it, Air Canada flight AC624's "hard landing" was a dramatic event, resulting in collapsed landing gear, a ripped-off engine and a severed nose cone after the jet began its skid 335 metres short of a snow-strewn Halifax runway.

Even so, hard landings are hardly extraordinary, say aviation experts. Any frequent flier has likely felt one, or maybe even slept through the experience.

It's another matter, though, when the touchdown wrecks a plane or causes 25 passengers to be hospitalized, as it did on Sunday, says Gordon Dupont, a former accident investigator with the Transportation Safety Board.

On Monday, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada issued a release describing Sunday's Air Canada Airbus A320 crash as a "collision with terrain" rather than as a "hard landing," the term used by officials with Halifax Stanfield International Airport and Air Canada.

But, as Dupont sees it, employing hard landing in this instance is a bit soft.

"It's like a teenager comes home and says, 'Dad, I put a little dent in the car,' and the dad comes out and the whole side of the car is wiped out," he says.

"It's baloney. If the pilot didn't intend to land there, that, to me, is a crash landing."

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada lists 21 hard-landing aviation investigation reports since 1994, many involving helicopters.

The most recent occurred in May 2013 at Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and two of the 21 involved Jazz flights, the budget service operated by Air Canada.

'Flaring' stage

Only hard landing accidents that result in aircraft damage, injuries or fatalities are recorded by the TSB.

And pilots pull off hard landings every day, often deliberately at smaller airports with shorter runways, Dupont said.

Landing gears, in fact, are designed to absorb firm touchdowns.

In an ideal landing approach, Dupont explained, the pilot pulls the nose up when the plane is a few feet above the runway, letting the main gear "kiss" the tarmac and glide to a smooth rest.

A hard landing occurs in the "flaring" stage when the nose pulls up too soon at the final approach, making the aircraft crunch down.

"If you've ever been through a landing that comes down with a thump, there's no damage or anything, but the pilots are saying, 'Damn, we just had a hard landing,'" said Dupont, who worked as an accident investigator for seven years before joining Transport Canada.

"It happens often, and it happens to good pilots."

For its part, the Airline Transport Association of Canada dismisses the term "crash landing" as an oxymoron.

"It's either a crash or it's a landing," said president John McKenna. "We don't think there's such a thing as a 'crash landing.'"

Following unusually bumpy landings, a carrier's on-board electronics will log whether the plane is in need of maintenance, but McKenna said commercial pilots also have an obligation to report abnormal landings.

Term wars

For its part, the Airline Transport Association of Canada dismisses the term "crash landing" as an oxymoron.

"It's either a crash or it's a landing," said president John McKenna. "We don't think there's such a thing as a 'crash landing.'"

Following unusually bumpy landings, a carrier's on-board electronics will log whether the plane is in need of maintenance, but McKenna said commercial pilots also have an obligation to report abnormal landings.

Aviation lawyer Arthur Rosenberg suspects officials with Halifax Stanfield International Airport and Air Canada have been choosing their words carefully to downplay the aviation scare as something more mundane than what's shown in photos.

Flight AC624 was carrying 133 passengers and five crew members when it smashed into an antenna array and clipped power poles before scraping along the ground on its belly.

Passengers were treated for minor cuts and bruises.

"The plane was demolished," Rosenberg said from his New York practice.

"A collapsed nose gear, collapsed main gear, bulkhead buckling, I can see the ripples from the skin on the leading edge of the airplane. Putting that all together, that was a crash landing."

'Rejected landing'

In 1997, Air Canada staff at the wreck site of Flight 646 painted over the carrier's logo the day after it lost control and slammed into a tree on arrival in Fredericton.

Of the 42 people on board that day, nine were seriously injured in the accident. TSB later classed it as a "loss of control on go-around" or "rejected landing" event.

The safety regulator describes other accidents as "crash on take-off," or "collisions" with terrain, trees and water.

The framing of Sunday's accident as something other than a crash is likely a public relations consideration for Air Canada.

There's otherwise "no legal basis" for how a crash or a hard landing would impact investigations, whether for insurance or Transportation Safety Board purposes, said Ehsan Monfared, a legal student with the Toronto aviation law firm Clark & Company.

"Those entities will come to their own conclusions as to what transpired, irrespective of how a carrier wishes to cast an event," Monfared said.

The firm's founder, aviation lawyer Bill Clark, suggested it was a botched "missed approach," which would involve a pilot electing not to land after approaching the runway, then passing around again to try again.

Whatever the cause of the accident, Clark and Monfared agree it was a far cry from a hard landing.

"I don't think anybody in the industry would describe the incident of what we've seen in the press so far as a hard landing," Clark said.

To read through the Transportation Safety Board's list of aviation investigation reports, visit the TSB website.

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