Aviation Final Approach

What happens when a speeding Boeing 737 meets one of the shortest runways in the nation? Welcome aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 1455

In the Chevron parking lot, Abayomi was busy trying to talk a Prime Time driver out of leaving Burbank early that evening. The two men sat in their vans, parked in tandem, facing the street and Runway 8’s terminus. “Look,” he said, “by seven o’clock we’re going to be really busy—just stay and I’ll give you the first fare that’s heading toward home.”

Inside the parking structure next door, manager Eric Miranda received a call from the airport’s taxi stand that a passenger needed shuttle service to the garage and sent a driver for pickup.

There was a strange grouping of buildings far below Kevin’s window, maybe Cal State Northridge, he wasn’t sure. Usually the approach over the Valley was straight out of the west along Sherman Way, Kevin ticking off the passing Kmarts and Costcos like a discount tracking system. But the Valley landscape below was foreign to him, a Twilight Zone—type mix-up. And they were a lot higher than usual, too. “Well, at least there’s no wind,” he said to Debbie. “Maybe they’ve been asked to take a different approach.”

Within the cockpit, 1455’s pilots were switching ground communications. In the airspace between McCarran and Burbank, pilots maintain contact with the federal TRACON command in San Diego, which monitors all flights over Southern California. When an approaching jet glides within five to eight miles of Burbank Airport, however, TRACON hands the plane off to the airport tower. In the cockpit, 1455’s captain and first officer were advised by Burbank’s tower to expect landing on Runway 8—the airport’s only controlled-instrument landing runway—and to maintain a speed of 230 knots or greater.

If they had made visual contact with the airport, what 1455’s pilots would have seen next would look like a black box on the Valley’s grid. Pilots complain that Burbank is one of the most inadequately lit airports on the West Coast, and approaching it at night they start by searching for the darkest spot on the horizon, a disorienting procedure of few visual cues known as the “black hole effect.”

In the cockpit, 1455’s crew was told by Burbank tower to expect ground winds from 210 degrees at 6 knots, meaning they would experience a tailwind upon landing. Tailwinds are not considered dangerous until they reach 10 knots, at which point they can literally push a plane down the tarmac, eating up too much runway too fast for a safe landing. Six knots, however, would not be a problem in a normal landing. Moments later, a second advisement cleared 1455 for approach, with a restriction to remain at or above 3,000 feet until passing Van Nuys airport.

Around Kevin, stewards gathered up the last stray cups and Cokes. Somewhere down there was an unseen beacon, at the moment hitting 1455 with its high-frequency beam and setting off an annunciator in the cockpit that signals to the pilot that he has arrived at the runway’s “outer marker” and should begin his final descent. Typically, approaching jets pass over Van Nuys airfield at a height of 2,800 feet, intercept the outer-marker beacon and begin a three-degree descent the six remaining miles to Runway 8.

Crossing the outer marker, a jet’s speed should be close to final approach speed, which is the plane’s stall speed multiplied by 1.3—roughly 135 mph for a 737. Fourteen-fifty-five was traveling much faster than normal approach speed over Van Nuys—possibly as fast as 230 knots. Sitting in the second row, Kevin watched Sherman Way rushing beneath him and realized the plane was not descending.

On approach, the string of possible missteps that can lead to disaster is called by aviators the “mishap chain.” Each is a link that can be broken to avoid final accident, but by entering the Valley’s airspace high, by not reducing speed and by now apparently overshooting its descent marker, 1455 had already accumulated several links in the chain. Perhaps the plane was attempting to make up lost time to the gate on approach. (Southwest would not comment on Flight 1455, citing the National Transportation Safety Board’s ongoing investigation.) In any event, the speeding approach continued. The jet passed over the 405 Freeway, mile five, but still did not descend. Then it passed over the Northridge Hospital Medical Center, mile four, and suddenly—Kevin thought, This is like a dive bomber that’s just spotted its target—the jet dropped out of the sky.

By now, 1455’S pilots would have calculated their landing data, entering plane’s weight and ground weather into a computer. With its full load of passengers, 1455 would need about 4,300 feet of landing distance. That figure was worthless now. The plane’s descent rate was more than double the norm—well outside the realm of a controlled-instrument approach—dropping at somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 feet a minute instead of the standard 750. The steep descent threatened a dangerously fast landing. Near touchdown, the pilot was going to have to suddenly pull up the jet’s nose to avoid impacting the runway. There was another option: a “go-around”—a procedure Southwest pilots train for—advancing the throttles to takeoff power, raising the plane’s nose, retracting flaps and landing gear. It is a simple maneuver that would allow a second approach. It would also add another 20 minutes to the already delayed flight. The jet maintained its steep approach, engines at idle, accumulating velocity in the night sky.

Kevin locked out his window and realized the last Costco, the landmark that usually informs him he should be touching down, was far behind and that they were still in the air. In 1455’s cockpit another warning sounded—a second beacon had found the jet at Runway 8’s middle marker, informing the pilot that he was close to the runway. “Hold on,” Kevin said, turning to Debbie. “This is going to be a hard landing.” A few moments later, 1455 touched down, hard, on Runway 8. It was traveling 208 mph, approximately 50 mph above normal landing speed, somewhere near the halfway mark on the tarmac. It was the last link in the chain of mishaps. The faster a plane hits a runway, the faster its pilots have to run through braking procedure: engaging the brakes; deploying the reverse thrusters, which redirect the jet exhaust forward (the wings’ spoilers deploy automatically, acting like a turned canoe paddle, slowing the plane). But it’s the brakes that have the most effect, and 1455 was making a lot of demands on its brakes. At 208 mph, the rubber treads on the jet’s tires shredded as the pilots attempted the equivalent of braking a car traveling 60 mph just 100 feet from a stop sign.

Inside the cabin, the oceanic swell of reverse thrusters and howling brakes rose over the passengers, Kevin thinking, Oh boy, this is going to be a ride! His heels dug into the carpet, but there still seemed to be optimism in the air around him, just another rough landing. Then 1455 began its turn toward the left—well, turn wasn’t the word for it, because the jet was still maintaining its path down the runway, only sideways. Now the optimism evaporated—that was the terminal that just went by—as service carts crashed while a kind of collective “Oh no” passed along the rows. The jet had side and forward motion—like the Luxor’s elevator—and Kevin’s face smashed into his window as the blast fence at the end of the runway loomed closer and closer.

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