An incorrect landing speed coupled with a sudden change in wind direction caused the hard landing of a Virgin Australia ATR 72-600, causing substantial aircraft damage, say investigators in a final report on the incident.
The turboprop, registered VH-FVZ, was operating a scheduled service from Sydney to Canberra on 19 November, 2017, when the incident took place. It was carrying 67 passengers and five crew members.
It was conducting a visual approach to Runway 35 at Canberra around 1.20pm local time, with light turbulence encountered, says the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. The calculated target approach speed was 113kt, with a forecast for a crosswind from the right of about 15kt.
The first officer, the pilot flying, said that he would slow the aircraft down earlier than usual to take into account the heavy aircraft weight, as well as the possibility of a tailwind during approach.
At about 265ft above runway level, the aircraft speed reduced, and the first officer increased power in response. As it continued to descend, the turbulent conditions, coupled with increased power, led to a higher aircraft speed.
Flight data indicates the speed had increased to 127kt, 4kt above the prescribed approach speed criteria, when the aircraft was about 118ft above airport elevation.
While the first officer did not realise the exceeded speed limit, he later reduced engine power to idle, to counter the potential of overshoot windshear. However, this led to an increase in descent rate.
A third person in the cockpit, a check captain, recognised the inappropriate power setting, “but assessed that input from him would not assist in the recovery of the approach”, states the report.
About five seconds before touchdown, the captain, who was the pilot monitoring, realised the power was too low, and asked the first officer to “ease on a bit [of power]”. The latter verbally agreed, but did not increase power.
Flight data indicates that about 50ft above runway level, the aircraft was descending at a rate higher than the prescribed limit — 784 feet per minute, instead of the normal 575 feet per minute. At touchdown the descent rate was 928 feet per minute.
Two seconds before touchdown the wind both changed direction and strengthened. The captain made a second call to increase power, before intervening and increasing power on both engines.
He also instructed the first officer to commence a go-around, but by then the aircraft had landed, with its rear fuselage making contact with the runway.
The ATR 72 suffered impact and abrasions to the underside of its rear fuselage, while the tail skid was fully compressed. The aircraft's main landing gear oleo struts also remained fully compressed after landing, indicating that they had lost gas pressure. No injuries were recorded from the incident.
In its analysis of the incident, the ATSB notes that the “continuation of the approach when a go-around should have been conducted allowed the subsequent conditions to develop, leading to the hard landing”.
It also took into account the pilots’ monitoring responses. It states that the delayed or reduced intervention by the captain might have stemmed from his confidence in his first officer’s ability to recover the “undesirable aircraft state”.
As for the check captain who took note of the inappropriate power setting, the Bureau found that while the carrier’s guidance allowed for the check captain to intervene, he “assessed that the approach and landing, while ‘untidy’, would be safe”.
Following the incident, Virgin Australia has amended operational documentation to stress the effects of sustained low power settings on the ATR 72 during approach and landing. This has been reinforced during training, the ATSB notes.
Cirium fleets data indicates VH-FVZ was delivered to Virgin Australia in 2013. It returned to service on 6 March 2018, after repairs were completed. Virgin Australia has five other ATR 72-600s.