Do Pilots Practice Crash Landings?

And other questions about the accident on British Airways.

Emergency services surround a British Airways plane at Heathrow Airport

A British Airways jet carrying 142 passengers and crew was forced to crash-land short of the runway at Heathrow Airport on Thursday night. Despite the fact that the plane had lost power and, according to eyewitnesses, dropped like a stone in the air, the pilot was able to land the Boeing 777 mostly intact. Slate readers asked several questions about this incident.

Do commercial airline pilots practice crash-landings in flight school?

No, but they may have instruction on how to configure the wing flaps and the landing gear in an emergency, and where to land. For example, a pilot might learn the best way to crash into rough seas—i.e., how to decide whether to land on the crest or in the trough of a wave.

Pilots do practice maneuvers for dealing with serious problems. A pilot undergoing training for a specific type of airliner would learn to operate that plane under normal circumstances as well as in worst-case scenarios, like losing cabin pressure or having problems with the hydraulics system.

Most of this training doesn’t take place in real planes, but in tricked-out flight simulators. The simulator is basically a large box on stilts that houses $15- to $20-million worth of equipment, and it looks, feels, and acts just like the cockpit of an actual plane. Make a right turn, and you’ll feel your body tugged downward and to the right; the monitors in front of you might display a realistic view of JFK Airport from 20,000 feet in the air. *(In addition to rides in the simulator, training also includes lengthy written tests.) After certification, the pilot is still required to make a series of flights—in a real plane with actual passengers—while under observation by a “check captain.”

Can a pilot fly again after crashing a plane?

Probably not until the incident has been thoroughly investigated, which can take a year or more. (The details depend on the airline and the circumstances of the crash.) The National Transportation Safety Board, with the help of other industry groups, will examine all the elements in the crash, including human factors like how much rest the crew had the previous night and whether anyone was on medication (here’s the NTSB database of aviation accidents). It’s rare for pilot error to be a significant cause of a commercial airliner crash, but the Federal Aviation Administration does have the right to suspend or revoke an airman’s certificate. (Violating the alcohol rules—no indulging within eight hours of takeoff and no more than 0.04 percent blood alcohol content permitted—can also fetch disciplinary action.) The pilot may also undergo additional training and testing at the request of the FAA or the airline. Sometimes, the FAA will recommend retraining to the entire industry; this was the case after an American Airlines plane plummeted in Queens, New York, in November 2001 after flying into the wake of a larger plane. The agency pushed for pilots to learn how to respond when a plane is “upset”—flipped sideways or upside down.

How do they get the plane wreckage off the runway?

By towing the plane if it’s still standing, or using a crane to move the pieces to a trailer. If the plane landed without extending the landing gear, you can place inflatable rubber bags under the wings to raise the plane. Once elevated, the plane can lower its gear and then be towed away.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Frank Ayers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Steve Jones at Western Michigan University.

* Correction, Jan. 23, 2008: The original story incorrectly said that making a right turn in a flight simulator will cause a person to feel his body tugged to the left. The body will actually have the sensation of being tugged downward and to the right. (Return to the corrected sentence.)