A history of strife: Jumbo wingtips and regional stabilizers

Monday night’s incident at John F. Kennedy International Airport, which featured the wingtip of an Air France A380 catching the horizontal stabilizer of a Delta CRJ700, has been broadcast widely, eliciting gasps and groans with the sight of the regional jet’s rapid 90-degree change of heading. The event has elicited calls to re-evaluate whether or not the A380 is too big to operate at congested airports – ironic as congested airports central to the aircraft’s business model – but while the historical context has largely been limited to reminders of the 1977 Tenerife accident, a far more recent example involving a jumbo and a regional jet offers some context.
In July 2006 the wingtip of a Thai Airways Boeing 747-400 in Madrid severed the stabilizer of an Air France Régional EMB-135 (full description of the incident) after the 747 inadvertently used a taxiway designed for aircraft no larger than Airbus A321s. The pictures of the aftermath are below.

The incident, which was not caught on video, didn’t happen in the US, but did involve the world’s largest commercial aircraft at the time did not elicit the same type of calls for a re-evaluation of using large aircraft at busy airports. This was likely because the taxiway was wasn’t intended for use by a 747 at the time, whereas taxiway A at JFK has been deemed A380 compliant. 
While the size of the aircraft was – for obvious reasons – a contributing factor in both incidents, the issue appears to be more related to situational awareness about the goings-on around an airport’s taxiways and tarmacs. 
The A380, 787 and 747-8 all feature airport moving maps on the flight deck with aircraft-centric displays directly integrated into the primary navigation displays and electronic flight bags. On Airbus aircraft the system is dubbed the Onboard Airport Navigation System (OANS) and the Airport Moving Map (AMM) for Boeing aircraft.
United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner CAE Simulator
A380-OANS2.jpgMissing from both OANS and AMM is the capability to display the position of other airport traffic providing a broad situational awareness for the crew on the flight deck. According to a feature in this quarter’s Aero, Boeing’s technical magazine, the airframer sees a possible 2015 availability for harnessing precision GPS-derived position data ADS-B to display nearby aircraft on the AMM. 
While there’s a natural tendency to overreact to an incident involving the largest commercial aircraft in the world striking a smaller regional jet at one of the planet’s busiest airports, a more reasoned incremental approach to solving the problem with technology will enable the best long-term solution. 
As air traffic worldwide continues to grow at a pace of 5% per year, airport infrastructure hasn’t been able to keep pace as congestion grows. A common refrain at this week’s MRO Americas conference was that as air traffic doubles over the next two decade, incidents and accidents cannot double as well. 
Jumbo jets have been with us for more than 40 years and wingtips large and small will infrequently make contact with objects providing a large-scale example of Newton’s laws of motion. This likely won’t change, though with the right technology, the frequency certainly can as aviation continues its worldwide growth.

14 Responses to A history of strife: Jumbo wingtips and regional stabilizers

  1. Greg April 14, 2011 at 2:01 pm #

    Seems like the more appropriate discussion is the number of regional jets at the world’s most congested airports rather than the number of jumbos.

    Lets leave our gateway cities for the big planes and find a way to get the regionals minimized.

  2. Houston April 14, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    Just realized I was this TG ship (HS-TGT) during a BKK-MUC run over the New Year’s holiday. I assume she got a paint job while in the shop: http://www.airliners.net/search/photo.search?regsearch=HS-TGT

  3. Eric Sees April 14, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Regardless of aircraft size, it is incumbent upon the on-side pilot to clear for obstructions encroaching on wing (and during turns, swinging tail) clearances. Regardless on-board technology, airport suitability, traffic congestion, and aircraft size differential; the Captain (left seat pilot in this case) was not prioritizing properly. I am sure there are many factors involved, but none of them relieves this responsibility. This is a good reminder to those of us on the front lines that it is still important to look out the window, especially during ground movements.

  4. alloycowboy April 14, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

    I think the real question is which aircraft was out of position? Or if not, why were there no hold marking on the tarmac to indicate a safe hold position for the waiting regional jet?

  5. marvin April 14, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    @Eric. In principle I agree with you. But on the other hand, motorists are under the obligation not to hit pedestrians, yet running onto a busy highway, at night, in a dark suit, expecting not to get hit is not really a good idea is it?

    In this case it seems there might be a lot of mitigating factors.

    1) The CRJ was parked at an unusual and improper spot hanging its tail out on the taxiway.
    2) The CRJ did not warn the ATC of its perilous position or else the ATC did not relay that information to the A380.
    3) The ATC did warn the A380 of an possible encounter several crossings down the taxiway implicitly forcing their attention there.
    4)The logo light on the CRJ might have been off.

    Of course the investigation should shed light on this, but it would not surprise me if the findings show that this accident is the result of a chain of events in which pilot judgement is only a minor factor. Therefore I would be hesitant to lay the responsibility so firmly with the pilots.

  6. JetAviator7 April 14, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    If we ban regional jets from major hubs who will feed the Jumbos?

    The problem is congestion and lack of attention to details like where our wingtips are and who are we near.

    In the old days it was called “situational awareness”.

  7. tomorrow it has to be done April 14, 2011 at 7:10 pm #

    Nobody was hurt.

  8. Terence April 15, 2011 at 3:59 am #

    What a tough little jet, the CRJ.
    Spun clear around and dropped hard yet still in one piece. Is it even possible for the flight crew to visually clear the A380′s wingtips from the cockpit? I think this incident will re-focus the need for added situational awareness when jumbos are on the move around a congested tarmac.

  9. Layman April 15, 2011 at 5:10 am #

    The A380 has a forward facing camera high up on the tail with a wide angle lens which would have assisted and possible prevented this collision.You get a clear picture of both wings, up to a slightly past teh wingtips. Given that this aid is available, perhaps the airlines should advise pilots to use it as assisted visibility.

  10. Speed April 15, 2011 at 5:52 am #

    Jon said, “The incident, which was not caught on video … did not elicit the same type of calls for a re-evaluation of using large aircraft at busy airports.”

    Because it wasn’t caught on video, for most people in the world it didn’t happen. Hence no calls for change.

  11. Ace_DC April 15, 2011 at 8:32 am #

    Using this incident to advance use of AMM showing other aircraft positions is dangerous. This technology is not ready yet, and rushing it could lead to more casual operations and unfortunately more of these incidents.

    Accidents happen. Thank goodness the operations at FAA and airlines are good enough that it happens so rarely. The fact this is such a big deal shows how good current processes really are.

  12. Geoffrey C April 17, 2011 at 2:31 am #

    I would like to see a couple things:
    Wingtips that can fold upward on the A380, and/or wingtip cameras on the A380. If that A380 had wingtip cameras, the pilot might have been able to stop before hitting the other plane. I noticed that the A380 was going a bit fast. At about a wingspan of 262 feet, it is too big.

  13. Ted Costopoulos April 18, 2011 at 11:54 pm #

    Hey,,,, we are human. Humans are made to make mistakes,but we hope that we can learn from this. How is the Cpt.`s pride ?

  14. Carlos June 20, 2011 at 9:25 am #

    What a shame the video was pulled…