AINsight: Bounced-landing Awareness and Recovery

 - April 28, 2023, 7:32 AM

In July 2010, a Lufthansa Cargo MD-11F crashed during landing at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The airplane bounced and the fuselage broke apart. Two pilots—the only occupants—were injured, one severely. 

Flight data indicated that two large forward and aft flight control inputs were made between the first and third touchdown. The third and final touchdown on the main landing gear exceeded 4 g, nearly twice the aircraft operating manual (AOM) limitation.

The captain told accident investigators that he considered the aircraft’s behavior after touchdown “shocking” and “much beyond his experience.” He later told investigators that he had not expected the “strong movement of the nose” and that the aircraft’s pitch attitude was “higher than the maximum allowable and outside of his comfort zone.” The maximum recorded pitch attitude during the landing was 13 degrees nose up. 

Following the Riyadh accident and other MD-11 landing accidents, investigators determined that the trijet had some unique and challenging landing characteristics. As such, the NTSB recommended that the FAA require Boeing to “revise its MD-11 flight crew operating manual (FCOM) to re-emphasize high-sink-rate awareness during landing, the importance of momentarily maintaining landing pitch attitude after touchdown and using proper pitch attitude and power to cushion excess sink rate in the flare, and to go around in the event of a bounced landing.” 

The NTSB further recommended that all operators of MD-11s incorporate the revised Boeing FCOM procedures for bounce recognition and recovery into their own operating manuals and teach the procedures during recurrent simulator training. 

But this issue is far from limited to MD-11s. In August 2019, a Cessna Citation Latitude crashed after bouncing multiple times during a landing attempt at the Elizabethton Municipal Airport in Tennessee. The aircraft was destroyed during a post-crash fire. Both pilots were uninjured and the three passengers had minor injuries.

The NTSB report highlighted an unstable approach that led to a bounced landing and runway excursion. Analysis of this accident report also identified several mismanaged threats and errors and poor cockpit resource management by the pilots that contributed to the crash. 

Before the botched landing, the flight crew had several opportunities to abandon the approach and go around. As an example, according to the accident report, at 500 feet above the runway the indicated airspeed was 174 knots (Vref+66). Also, the thrust levers were at flight idle during the entire approach—another clue that the approach was grossly unstable.

The aircraft touched down at 126 knots (Vref+18) at 1.4 gs and then bounced three times. During the final bounce, it reached a height of 24 feet and the airspeed decreased from 119 to 91 knots. The impact of the final touchdown was 3.2 gs—hard enough to collapse the right main landing gear, causing the aircraft to depart the runway. 

Surviving a Bounced Landing Unscathed

According to the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) “Approach-and-Landing Accident Reduction” briefing notes, a rejected landing is a go-around maneuver initiated after the touchdown of the main landing gear. These rejected landings—also called aborted landings—are challenging and recommended only when the aircraft bounces more than approximately five feet off the runway after touchdown. 

There are several undesirable outcomes of a poorly executed rejected landing such as a tail strike, aircraft performance limitations, or loss of aircraft control following the inappropriate selection of thrust reversers.

A bounced landing is usually the result of one or more of the following factors: loss of visual reference, excessive sink rate, late flare, incorrect or incomplete flare technique, excessive airspeed, and/or a power-on touchdown that prevents automatic extension of ground spoilers. 

Bounced-landing recovery techniques vary by aircraft type and by the height above the runway reached during the bounce. 

One of the greatest challenges for pilots is to determine the actual height of the bounce. In larger transport-category aircraft, it can be difficult to determine whether the aircraft bounced. Based on the distance between the cockpit and main landing gear, aircraft pitch attitude at touchdown, and forces on the body, it is hard to tell whether the aircraft was “light on the struts,” skipped, or bounced. 

Bounced landings are classified either as light or high bounce. A light bounce is five feet or less while a high bounce is five feet or more. The proper bounce recovery depends on these classifications.  

The typical recovery technique from a light bounce involves these steps: 

• Maintain or regain normal landing pitch attitude. Do not increase pitch—an increase in pitch may result in a tail strike. 

• Continue the landing.

• Use power as required to soften the second touchdown.

• Be aware of increased landing distance.

The typical recovery technique from a high bounce is more complex and involves these steps (note: do not attempt to land since the remaining runway distance may be insufficient):

• Maintain or establish a normal landing pitch attitude.

• Initiate the go-around (select go-around or TOGA levers) and advance thrust levers to the go-around thrust position. 

• Maintain the landing flaps configuration or set flaps as required by the aircraft operating manual.

• Be prepared for a second touchdown.

• Be prepared to add forward pressure to the control column as the engines begin to spool up (this is more pronounced in aircraft with under-wing-mounted engines.)

• When safely climbing and established in the go-around and there is no risk of runway contact, follow normal go-around procedures.

• Re-engage automation to reduce workload. 

It is important to note that these bounced-landing recovery techniques are generic and thus might differ based on aircraft type. It is recommended that pilots review their AOM or FCOM for specific procedures that relate to bounced-landing recovery in their aircraft. 

Another recommendation is to dig deep into the aircraft systems manual and learn all the nuances that relate to the activation of ground spoilers, autobrakes, thrust reversers, the go-around mode, and other systems during landing. 

As an example, ground-spoiler deployment will typically require the system to be armed, thrust levers at idle, and weight on wheels on either one or both main landing gear (find what it is on your specific aircraft). In the same vein, on some aircraft the go-around mode is inhibited below five feet of radar altitude—does your aircraft have any of these nuances?

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Take advantage of any opportunities to practice bounced-landing procedures in the simulator during initial or recurrent training. Repetition and application of the correct recovery procedures in the simulator will help overcome the startle effect of a real-life bounced-landing encounter.