Over and Down: The crash of FedEx flight 80

The wreckage of FedEx flight 80 at Narita Airport after the crash. (Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives)

On the 23rd of March 2009, a FedEx cargo plane was landing at Tokyo’s Narita Airport when something went terribly wrong. The plane bounced, dived into the runway, flipped upside down, and exploded, leaving a trail of fiery wreckage strewn across the airport in full view of passengers in the terminal. Although firefighters hurried to save the crewmembers, it was too late: both pilots, the only people on board the wide body MD-11, were killed in the crash. What struck investigators was the similarity to another accident nearly 12 years earlier, in which another FedEx MD-11 touched down, bounced, flipped over, and burned in Newark, New Jersey. That crash had shown that the MD-11 had a nasty tendency to go out of control on landing if the pilots botched the touchdown; as a result, new training was implemented. So why, after all these years, had it happened again? Had some lesson not been learned? The answer would once again change how MD-11 pilots are taught to land this most fickle of airliners.

Schematic of the McDonnell Douglas MD-11. (Julien Scavini)

In 1986, struggling manufacturer McDonnell Douglas announced that it was coming out with a new wide body airliner to compete with the next generation of long range jets by Airbus and Boeing. But while its competitors unveiled the radically new Boeing 777 and Airbus A340, McDonnell Douglas decided on something a little more conservative: a modernized version of its classic DC-10, a three-engine jet originally designed in the 1960s. The updated DC-10 would have a higher seating capacity, greater fuel efficiency, and a modern glass cockpit with computers assisting in every aspect of flight. Thus was born the MD-11: an airliner which, in hindsight, was doomed to rapid obsolescence from the very beginning.

The MD-11 was wracked with problems from the moment it entered service in December 1990. Operators rapidly discovered that its promised fuel efficiency was a myth: its range was actually 500 miles short of what had been promised. By the time McDonnell Douglas fixed the issue with fuel consumption optimization software in 1993, the damage was already done. And that was hardly the only issue: pilots were finding that the MD-11 was extremely difficult to fly. It was hard to override the autopilot. When the pitch became unstable in flight, the plane would sometimes buck wildly up and down for several minutes before the pilots could regain control. It was easy to deploy the slats in cruise flight by accident. And landing the plane required intense concentration to prevent all kinds of undesirable effects that could manifest on touchdown. Part of the problem was that McDonnell Douglas had given the MD-11 an unusually small horizontal stabilizer in order to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency. This reduced longitudinal stability and made the plane prone to wild changes in pitch, which were in turn harder to counter due to the small pitch control surfaces. It also forced pilots to land the MD-11 at a speed of 154 knots, faster than literally any other airliner. McDonnell Douglas had tried to compensate for these issues using software that worked full time to maintain pitch stability by controlling a ballast tank, but the computers were unable to completely solve the problem.

N526FE, the MD-11 involved in the FedEx flight 80 accident, pictured days before the crash. The same pilots involved in the accident flight were also on board when this photo was taken. (Kentaro Iemoto)

Because of all of these problems, by the time it had seen ten years in service, the MD-11 had developed an accident rate 15 times worse than its contemporaries. And yet, there didn’t seem to be one specific reason why this should be the case. McDonnell Douglas, and later Boeing, which took over its rival in 1997, frequently fixed problems when they arose, but there were always more issues lurking under the surface, and many of them involved some level of human error which made them especially difficult to root out. The reason for the MD-11’s poor safety record may well have been its basic design characteristics, but to acknowledge this would require everyone from the engineers to the FAA to admit that they had designed, built, and sold an airplane that was fundamentally and irreparably unstable. Besides, by 2000, production was wrapping up on the last handful of MD-11s, and passenger airlines were already abandoning the type in favor of the Boeing 777. Within a few years, almost all the remaining MD-11s would be flying cargo, not passengers, anyway.

Route of FedEx flight 80. (Google)

By 2009, the largest MD-11 operator was FedEx Express, the airborne division of the well-known logistics company and one of the world’s largest cargo carriers. (Today, nearly half of all MD-11s still in service fly for FedEx.) The American company’s purple-and-white MD-11s were and still are a common sight at major airports around the world.

FedEx flight 80 was a regular MD-11 cargo flight from Guangzhou, China to Tokyo, Japan, early on the morning of the 23rd of March 2009. In command of the flight were Captain Kevin Mosley and First Officer Anthony Pino, both of whom were quite experienced and had plenty of time on the MD-11. They had been making short- to medium-haul flights all over East Asia for the past week, and the flight to Tokyo’s Narita Airport presented no particular challenges.

Flight 80 departed Guangzhou at 2:06 a.m. local time — an unusual departure time for passengers, but a normal time for cargo. The three and a half hour fight passed without incident, until around 6:40 a.m. Japanese time, when the flight was on final approach into Narita.

Wind speed vs. direction around the time of the accident. (JTSB)

The weather that day was clear but extremely turbulent. Planes landing ahead of flight 80 reported that while the wind direction was consistent, its intensity varied greatly, with fluctuations as large as 15 knots above and below the nominal wind speed. For First Officer Pino, who was flying the plane, this would make landing the already squirrely MD-11 even trickier. Captain Mosley decided that they should use an approach speed ten knots faster than normal in order to ensure that a sudden decrease in the strength of the headwind wouldn’t cause a dangerous loss of lift.

At 6:46, the tower controller cleared flight 80 to land on Narita Airport’s runway 34L. Seconds later, an automated voice called out, “ONE THOUSAND.” Turbulence rocked the plane, sending it lurching violently. “Yeehaw!” Mosley exclaimed. “Ride ’em, cowboy!”

“APPROACHING 34L,” said the Runway Awareness Advisory System.

First Officer Pino kept fighting to keep their speed near the desired value, without success. Their airspeed increased as high as 180 knots and fell as low as 152 knots, well beyond the parameters of a stabilized approach. By 500 feet, they were supposed to have the approach stabilized — meaning on the proper glide path, and at a speed and angle which require only small adjustments to maintain. Despite the gusts of wind throwing them in every direction, when the automated voice called out “FIVE HUNDRED,” Captain Mosley replied, “Stable!” His announcement was met with laughter, but both pilots continued on without a word.

The major fluctuations in the plane’s speed and pitch continued right up to the ground. At 198 feet, they were at 178 knots; by 92 feet, this had fallen to 154 knots. At this low speed and at low thrust the plane started sinking too rapidly, so First Officer Pino pulled the nose up to try to gain lift and slow their rate of descent. But as soon as he pulled up, the increased drag from the high angle of attack caused their speed to drop even more, so he pushed the nose down again. He needed to increase thrust to more easily maintain the desired approach speed of 164 knots, but at no point did he do this. Instead, he pitched down to about 1.1 degrees, well below the normal pitch attitude on approach, in an attempt to increase their airspeed.

By the time they reached 50 feet above the runway, their pitch was too low and their sink rate was much too high. At this point, the autothrottle automatically entered “Retard mode” and began reducing engine power for landing, making the problem even worse. Pino should have manually restored power, but he was so busy trying to control the plane that he failed to do so.

“FIFTY,” said the altitude alert system. The plane kept descending. “FORTY. THIRTY. TWENTY. TEN.” At this rate of descent, there was only one second between each of the callouts, barely enough time to act. Pino needed to pull up to flare the airplane for touchdown at around 30 feet, but he didn’t manage to do so until 20 feet, probably due to their rapid rate of descent. Recognizing that he had flared slightly late, he pulled up quite sharply, causing the nose to rise to 4.6 degrees, which was too high. Perhaps fearing that he would cause the tail to strike the runway, he immediately pushed the nose back down again.

Animation of the first and second touchdowns (played back at 25% speed to assist with visualizing what happened). (Mayday)

One second later, the MD-11 touched down on runway 34L at a speed of 166 knots — 307 kilometers per hour — with a sink rate of seven feet per second (2.1 m/s), more than three times the normal value. The plane touched down hard and bounced back into the air. When an airliner bounces on landing, the pilot must raise the nose and increase power — known as the bounce recovery maneuver — in order to ensure that the second touchdown goes smoothly. The worst possible thing a pilot can do is pitch down — but that’s exactly what Pino did, about one second after touchdown. The nose-down input he made right before touchdown was only just starting to kick in when he pushed down even more, causing the plane to pitch over to -1.8 degrees. A split second later, the MD-11 faceplanted into the runway; the nose gear struck the ground before the main gear, causing the nose to bounce rapidly upward. The plane’s pitch increased substantially and they shot back up into the air a second time, rising several meters above the runway.

Security video of FedEx flight 80 crashing. (AirBoyd)

Pino and Mosley were now in a truly critical situation: in just a couple of seconds, they would come crashing back down onto the runway with incredible force, and only prompt action could save them. Unfortunately, they did the opposite of what they needed. When the plane pitched up suddenly on the second bounce, the rapid rotation caught Pino by surprise, and he pitched down sharply again. From a peak of 6.7 degrees nose up, the plane rapidly swung around to nose down. Recognizing his mistake, Pino began to pull up again, but it was too late. With a terrible crunching sound, the MD-11 nosedived into the runway with tremendous force, pulling more than 3 G’s in the process. The nose bounced high into the air and the main landing gear slammed into the runway with a sink rate in excess of 21 feet per second (6.5 m/s). The left main landing gear plowed upwards through the wing, snapping the wing spar in half instantly. The left wing started to tear away from the fuselage, while the right wing continued to generate lift, causing a rapid roll to the left. The fuel tanks tore open and a massive fireball erupted behind the plane as the atomized jet fuel ignited. Surrounded by flames, the MD-11 began to turn over like a capsizing ocean liner, streaking past the passenger terminal in full view of hundreds of people. Inside the cockpit, Captain Mosley shouted, “Fire! Oh shit!”

“BANK ANGLE! BANK ANGLE!” screamed the ground proximity warning system.

Flames billowing, metal scraping on asphalt, the plane crashed down on its roof and slid off the runway, plowing into the grass verge. It ground to a halt surrounded by fire, its severed left wing lying beside it.

Before the plane had even come to rest, the stunned air traffic controller activated the crash alarm, and fire trucks were on the scene in under a minute. Firefighters tried to reach the cockpit, which appeared to have remained away from the flames, but the forward galley was on fire and they were unable to push through. It wasn’t until more than an hour after the crash that firefighters succeeded in breaking into the cockpit, by which point both pilots were already dead. Captain Mosley had died of major injuries sustained during the impact, while First Officer Pino died shortly afterward due to smoke inhalation. With both pilots dead, that made flight 80 the first fatal aircraft accident in FedEx’s history.

When the Japan Transport Safety Board (JTSB) began the investigation, it was already looking like this was yet another MD-11 bounced landing accident. There had already been several previous incidents in which MD-11s were substantially damaged due to hard landings, including two in which a wing broke off and the plane flipped upside down. One of these occurred in 1997 in Newark, New Jersey, when FedEx flight 14 touched down hard on landing, flipped over, and burst into flames. Fortunately, all five occupants managed to escape with minor injuries. And in 1999, a China Airlines MD-11 landing in Hong Kong during a typhoon also flipped over and lost a wing, killing three passengers, while 312 people escaped with their lives. The cause of all these destructive landings lay in the handling characteristics of the MD-11, specifically its unusually high landing speed (meaning more kinetic energy on touchdown) combined with its notoriously fickle pitch controls. Without aggressive recovery measures, heavily bounced landings in the MD-11 tended to snowball into fiery wrecks due to a phenomenon called porpoising. In such an event, each bounce causes the plane to rise higher off the runway, resulting in more energy when it touches down again, leading to an even larger bounce, until eventually something fails catastrophically. Although porpoising can occur on any airplane, the MD-11 was the only airliner on which porpoising had ever led to a wing breaking off and the plane going inverted — an accident scenario which had now happened three separate times.

Animation of the crash of FedEx flight 14 in Newark in 1997. (Mayday)

After the 1997 crash in Newark, the US FAA had ordered all MD-11 operators to train their pilots in a newly developed bounce recovery technique. Upon recognizing a bounce, the pilots should hold a positive pitch angle while increasing engine thrust to rein in their sink rate, allowing the airplane to float down the runway until it touches down smoothly. Both Captain Mosley and First Officer Pino received bounce recovery training in 2006. So why hadn’t it worked?

Much of the plane burned over after impact and was doused with foam to quench the flames. (Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives)

A review of the flight data showed that the landing began with a relatively normal bounce — toward the upper end in terms of force, certainly, but not outside what the plane was designed to handle. This bounce had come about because First Officer Pino had been unable to prevent the plane from sinking too quickly while fighting against turbulent winds. It was only after the first bounce that things began to go wrong: instead of pulling up and increasing power, Pino didn’t touch the power lever at all, and pitched down instead of up. It was at this point that JTSB investigators came to a fascinating realization: due to the way the plane was moving, Pino probably never even knew that they bounced. Because the MD-11’s cockpit is unusually far forward of its center of gravity, it was not always clear from the front of the plane what the back end was doing. When the main landing gear struck the ground and bounced off, the back of the plane rotated upward, while the front end continued on its original trajectory. From the perspective of the pilots, it would have looked like they had touched down normally and were continuing to roll out with the nose gear on the ground. First Officer Pino probably pitched down after the first bounce in order to lower the nose onto the runway like he would during a normal landing.

All frames from the still-photo security camera (from the JTSB report) compiled into a single video by Chillout Jr. on YouTube.

This in turn led to the second touchdown, which was heavier than the landing gear was rated for, but not so heavy that it seriously damaged the airplane. This time it was obvious that the plane had bounced, but Pino still did the wrong thing: he pitched the nose down again. Despite all his training, the surprise effect overcame him, and when the plane pitched up suddenly he instinctively countered it with a large nose-down input that sealed the fate of the airplane and its occupants. Although he quickly realized his mistake and began what might have been an abortive attempt at a bounce recovery maneuver (the flight data recorder registered an increase in engine thrust as well as an increase in pitch just before the third touchdown), the window of opportunity to prevent catastrophe was already gone. In the end, the FAA-mandated training had proved unable to overcome a dangerous base instinct.

Firefighters tackle remaining hotspots in the wreckage after the crash. (Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives)

Several circumstantial factors contributed to the pilots’ failure to prevent the escalating sequence of bounces. Like so many other accidents, fatigue looms large. The sources on this matter are somewhat contradictory: the official JTSB report indicates that investigators don’t know how much sleep the pilots got, while NTSB representatives are on the record providing specific numbers. If the NTSB is to be believed, Captain Mosley had perhaps four hours of sleep in the day before the accident, while First Officer Pino had even less. Following this paltry rest, they flew an overnight flight, leaving the Philippines at 9:44 p.m. and remaining on duty until landing in Tokyo shortly before 7:00 a.m. The pilots themselves confirmed the negative effects of this lack of sleep and disrupted circadian cycle: 45 minutes before the crash, the cockpit voice recorder captured them joking about being fatigued.

Investigators also noted that although both pilots were very experienced, First Officer Pino did not have much practice landing the MD-11. He usually flew with relief crews, meaning he only took over in the middle of cruise during long haul flights and rarely handled takeoffs or landings. During the previous two and a half years, he had flown an average of just 2.5 landings per month, far less than was needed to remain proficient.

Now there were three factors coming together: the pilots’ fatigue, the First Officer’s lack of experience with landings, and the MD-11’s tricky handling characteristics. All of these conspired in just a few critical seconds to cause the accident. Fatigued and lacking in relevant experience, Pino had to use his full concentration to control the plane in the gusty winds, leading him to neglect their descent rate. Due to the unexpectedly high descent rate, he was about one second late flaring the plane for touchdown. Without time for the flare to smooth out their descent, the plane hit hard and bounced. That one second between the height where he should have flared and when he actually flared was crucial. Perhaps, had he not been fatigued, he might have reacted in time. But on under four hours of sleep, having been in the cockpit for several hours already, there was no chance he could act quickly enough in such a rapidly unfolding situation.

Once the plane bounced, these same factors contributed to the pilots’ failure to rein in the porpoising. First Officer Pino’s brain was operating slower than normal and he hadn’t landed much in recent years. This helps explain why his first reaction was an instinctive one rather than what he had been trained to do during the bounce recovery training three years earlier. Further exacerbating the problem was the fact that the special training was only required upon initial conversion to the MD-11 — pilots received it once, and that was it. Perhaps if he had been drilled on bounce recovery every year, it might have been familiar enough to override his instinct to pitch down.

The right main landing gear was left sticking up like a flag pole. (STR/AFP)

The JTSB identified three ways that the crash could have been directly prevented, two of which lay with the pilots, and one with the design of the airplane. First, simulations showed that adding a little bit of thrust at as low as 100 feet above the ground would have allowed a completely normal landing. The next most obvious opportunity was after the second bounce, when the plane lurched high into the air. By this point the plane was high enough and far enough down the runway that a normal bounce recovery maneuver might have resulted in a runway overrun. But another option existed: going around. Had either pilot accelerated to takeoff/go-around power, they could have pulled away from the runway and circled around for another landing attempt. Unfortunately, it appeared that neither pilot recognized the danger they were in until it was too late to do this. Had Captain Mosley been more alert himself, he might have been able to step in at the last moment and save the plane — but in the event, he seemed to be totally unaware of what was going on.

Finally, the JTSB identified what might have been the smallest possible change that could have prevented the accident. When the plane touched down for the first time, the ground spoilers automatically deployed in order to reduce lift and push the plane into the runway. However, they took 1.2 seconds to deploy, and as soon as they were fully extended they started to retract again because the plane had left the ground. JTSB computer simulations showed that had the ground spoilers deployed in 0.6 seconds instead of 1.2 seconds, the crash actually would not have happened! The dampening effect of the ground spoilers during those crucial six tenths of a second would have had a snowball effect that resulted in a totally different outcome, underscoring just how sensitive the MD-11 was to small changes in configuration and attitude during the moment of touchdown. As a result of the findings, the JTSB recommended that Boeing find a way to reduce the time it takes for the spoilers to deploy.

The JTSB also looked at why the failure of the main landing gear led to an explosion that engulfed the plane. According to FAA certification rules, when the maximum load on the landing gear is exceeded, the bogie must tear away from the wing without breaching the fuel tanks. However, this requirement assumed an impact in an “upward and aft direction” consistent with striking an object. When exposed to a purely vertical load with almost no aft component, like on the accident flight, there was no guarantee that the landing gear would break away safely. The FAA stated that this was not part of the test criteria at the time the MD-11 was certified, but that by 2009, it had long since started asking manufacturers to prove the gear was safe when overloaded vertically as well as horizontally. Had the MD-11 complied with the modern interpretation of this rule, the gear would have sheared away on the third touchdown, the left wing would have settled onto the runway, and the plane probably would have stayed upright, perhaps allowing the pilots to escape before fire consumed the airplane.

The World On Time — except when it isn’t. (Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives)

One year after the crash of FedEx flight 80, that exact scenario actually happened. A Lufthansa Cargo MD-11 was landing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia when it bounced and impacted the runway so hard that the aft fuselage broke. The plane slid off the runway upright, and the pilots were able to escape the resulting fire with minor injuries. This was but one of several hard landings that caused major damage in the period following the Narita crash. By the end of 2010, both the JTSB and NTSB had become quite concerned about the problem: of 14 hard landings on the MD-11 which resulted in substantial damage to the airplane, half of them had occurred in 2009 and 2010 alone, compared to an equal number during the entire period from 1990 to 2008. Were MD-11 pilots losing their touch?

Another aerial overview of the crash site. (NBC News)

In 2010, Boeing hosted a conference of MD-11 operators to go over the series of hard landings and crashes and consider what changes might need to be made. The main outcome of this conference was increased emphasis on avoiding high sink rates on touchdown during training and in the manual. Boeing also made a number of alterations to the manual and its associated procedures, such as a higher flare height, and instructed pilots to go around if they bounce instead of trying to recover. On top of this, FedEx introduced a number of new training elements, including a module that helps pilots understand how the MD-11’s long body affects the relative motion of the different parts of the airplane, improved landing training, and a strict emphasis on going around in place of the bounce recovery maneuver; and installed head-up displays on all its MD-11s, among other changes. The switch to advising pilots to go around after a bounced landing is especially relevant as it tackles the root cause of the issue: the failure of bounce recovery training to solve the problem of destructive bounced landings. Now, instead of a procedure that is only used situationally, pilots can apply a solution that is used in numerous scenarios and is practiced frequently. Since this change was implemented, major bounced landing incidents on the MD-11 have virtually disappeared.

In addition to these measures, and the previously mentioned point about the ground spoilers, the JTSB also recommended that the MD-11 incorporate a system to indicate whether the gear is on the ground; that a more robust fire barrier be installed between the cargo area and the cockpit; and that Boeing alleviate the MD-11’s undesirable landing characteristics by any means possible, including by preventing large nose-down inputs during touchdown or introducing a system to automatically initiate a bounce recovery.

After the crash, the pieces of the plane were cleared away into a field beside the runway for further investigation. (International Aviation Safety Association)

Today, over 100 MD-11s continue to fly, all of them with cargo airlines like FedEx — the last MD-11 in passenger service was retired in 2014. Since the 2010 crash landing in Riyadh, there haven’t been any more accidents — but the MD-11 remains just as tricky to fly. Back in the day, pilots came up with all kinds of disparaging nicknames for it, from “Death Star” to “Scud,” after the erratic Scud missiles used by Iraq during the Gulf War. Improvements over the years have eliminated the most common ways to lose control outright, but the plane is still sensitive, slow to respond, and easy to overcontrol. One might call the MD-11 a failed experiment, although that’s not quite true — it probably still has a fairly long life ahead of it in the cargo industry. But at the same time, the story of the MD-11 is a cautionary tale that will probably prevent a plane with similar design characteristics from being built in the future— and not necessarily just due to safety concerns. Indeed, when Boeing elected to cease production of the MD-11 in 2000, it was not because the plane was unsafe, but because it couldn’t compete economically with its peers. The era of long-range twin-engine jets with docile flight characteristics is doubtlessly here to stay.

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Analyzer of plane crashes and author of upcoming book (soon™). Contact me via @Admiral_Cloudberg on Reddit or by email at kylanddempsey@gmail.com.