Pence Plane’s Skid Shows Risks of Tight Runways at LaGuardia

  • Accident was third airliner off a LaGuardia runway since 2013
  • Candidate’s jet hit by tailwinds while landing in rainstorm

The plane that was carrying Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence sits on the runway at New York's LaGuardia Airport on Oct. 27, 2016.

The out-of-control landing that sent Republican vice president candidate Mike Pence’s plane fishtailing off the runway Thursday at New York’s LaGuardia Airport is the latest in a series of runway mishaps at one of the U.S.’s tightest and busiest airports.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent an 11-person team to investigate the accident. Since 2013, the agency has conducted two previous major accident investigations involving planes sliding off runways at LaGuardia.

Pence’s chartered Boeing Co. 737-700 landed hard, slid sideways and came to rest in a grassy area during a rain storm at about 7:42 p.m., NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said at a briefing on Friday. There were no injuries, although the airport was briefly closed and emergency crews were called to the scene.

“When we landed, it was obvious I think to everybody on the plane that the pilots were hitting the brakes very hard,” Pence said Friday on MSNBC. “It was about 10 seconds of uncertainty but we were all fine.”

Data Recorder

The plane’s crash-proof data recorder showed the plane touched down at 140 miles (225 kilometers) an hour, Sumwalt said. While landing speeds vary depending on weight and other factors, that seemed to be within a normal range, he said. Sumwalt flew the 737 as an airline pilot prior to joining the NTSB.

The preliminary data released by the safety board may offer some clues hinting at why the plane didn’t stop. Devices known as spoilers, panels on the top of the wings that come up after touchdown to help slow a plane, were broken, requiring pilots to set them manually, Sumwalt said. They deployed four seconds after touchdown, which is several seconds later than if they had come up automatically, he said.

The plane’s thrust reversers, devices on the engines that reverse airflow and also help slow the aircraft down, were engaged about seven seconds after touchdown, he said.

Winds at the time of landing were gusty and from the side and rear, which also may have added a degree of complexity to the touchdown, said Steve Wallace, the former accident investigation chief at the Federal Aviation Administration.

Strong Winds

A government weather station reported 11 minutes after the accident that winds were 11.5 miles (18.5 kilometers) an hour, gusting to 17 miles (27 km), from the east. Optimally, pilots want to land directly into the wind, which allows a plane to land at a slower speed relative to the ground. While aircraft are allowed to land with moderate winds from the side or the rear, such conditions can make it trickier, Wallace said.

“Those are just combined additional factors,” Wallace said. “That’s often what causes these type of accidents, a combination of factors.”

The incident highlights the risks at some older U.S. airports hemmed in by development or their placement near bodies of water that have prevented them from lengthening runways.

“There is no question that shorter runways present more challenges to pilots, particularly in New York,” said Peter Goelz, former managing director at the NTSB who is now senior vice president at O’Neill & Associates in Washington.

Because LaGuardia runs at maximum capacity for most of the day, flight crews have to be on their toes and may face greater pressures not to break off an approach than at other airports, Goelz said. “There is no room for mistakes,” he said. “There is inherent pressure to make the landings.”

Safety Zone

Pence’s campaign plane was landing toward the southwest on a 7,001-foot runway that lacked the required 1,000-foot safety zone at the end.

The jet was slowed by a pad of crushable concrete designed for airports without the safety runoff areas mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to tweets by the agency and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates LaGuardia.

Aircraft that roll into the Engineered Material Arresting System sink into the pad, preventing them from going off the end.

Past Incidents

The NTSB earlier this year faulted Delta Air Lines Inc. pilots for using the wrong technique for trying to stop a Boeing MD-88 on a snow-covered runway at LaGuardia. The plane skidded and its nose came to rest on a seawall on March 5, 2015.

“Make no mistake: This was a very close call,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said at the hearing in Washington on the accident.

A Southwest Airlines Co. 737-700 suffered major damage on July 22, 2013, when it slammed down so hard on a runway at LaGuardia that its nose wheel collapsed. The NTSB found that the captain on the plane, who didn’t follow airline procedures, should have aborted the touchdown after taking control from the copilot.

The incident with Pence’s plane also falls into a category of air-carrier accidents that is the most common across the world, and which have frustrated investigators for decades, Wallace said.

It’s extremely rare for a plane to go off the runway if pilots adhere to basic procedures governing their speeds and angle of descent as they approach the runway, he said.

“I kind of consider it the accident that never goes away, even though the ingredients that prevent it are so simple,” Wallace said.

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