An expert about the crash at Congonhas airport

As I promised I managed to make a short interview with a friend of mine at Malev who is a pilot. I asked him about runways and landing techniques and about his opinion on the news.

Before I start, let me quote from Wikipedia’s article about Congonhas airport.

Congonhas/São Paulo Airport or Congonhas Airport is one of São Paulo’s three commercial airports, situated 8 kilometres from the city downtown. It is administered by Infraero and, as of 2005, was the busiest airport in Brazil with 17,500,000 passengers passing through it.

In 1957, the airport was the third busiest in the world for cargo and freight.

Unfortunately, it continues to be troubled by slippery runways and has had several accidents because of this (most noticeably, the one involving Flight 3054 of TAM Linhas Aéreas in July of 2007), although the main runway was repaved in June 2007. The runway needs to be grooved to drain rainwater, and the Airport Authority plans to do it very shortly. Following the accident, the airport has been shut down to all flights except small aircrafts until the investigation is done.


17L/35R 1435 x 45 m PCN 38 F/B/X/U (over-run area of 67 m on 35R) 17R/35L 1940 x 45 m PCN 50 F/B/X/T

Displaced threshold of 126 m RWY 17R, and 61 m RWY 35L. Take-off at each end is 1940 m, but landing length is 1814 m on 17R and 1879 m on 35L. Preferred approach and departure runway is 17R.”

The Malev pilot did not agree to mention his name, so I will quote him as Pilot.

Me: How long are the avarage runways?
Pilot: around 2,5 – 3 kilometers long.
Me: So this was really a short one.
Pilot: Yes.
Me: When you fly a plane how do you get information on the weather?
Pilot: it is sent frequently from the ground during the flight via a special telex. It is the so-called meteo data and it is available in a shorter form for anyone.
Me: Has it ever happened that you did not have information about bad weather at an airport?
Pilot: No, never. If we have not received information, we requested one.
Me: Is it you responsibility as a pilot to gain all information necessary for decisions on landing?
Pilot: Yes, absolutely.
Me: Could it happen that this pilot did not have information about the bad circumstances at Sao Paulo?
Pilot: No, we can particularly close it out from the reasons.
Me: Could it happen that he did not know how bad runways are at that airport?
Pilot: Well, it could happen, but I can hardly believe so as it was an internal flight in Brazil, so if he was not completely new at domestic airports, he must have known about what was waiting for him there.
Me: What is the difference between wet surface and a surface that is completely under water?
Pilot: When water covers the surface, it is much harder to land. This situation is called hydroplaning. This will probably ring the bell about hydroplanes and their mechanics. It needs a special technique and it is really not advantegous to land in such circumstances.
Me: The pilot was said to attempt to abort landing. Do you think it is true?
Pilot: Yes, I heard about it, too. Well, if he did so, that was a bad mistake. Imagine that you are approaching a runway with about 100-120 miles per hour. It is around the same speed that is required for take off. Now let’s count time. You put down the plane. You break and you realize it is slippery. You decide on taking off again. You turn on the engines again. It takes seconds until the engines are up again and they have enough power to accelerate. Then you still have several seconds to gain the same speed back for taking off. While you have done all this, you could have tried to avoid running off from the runway or if you see there is now way avoiding the accident at least not to run into the bulding.
Me: so you say it was mostly the fault of the pilot.
Pilot: No, of course not. Whenever there is an air crash, it is always a situation when more causes ally. There are hardly any accidents where you can claim only one cause. I think the airport is to blame for sure for not maintaining the runways. The local cicil aviation authorities are to blame for not closing down the airport earlier. The airline is to blame for operating flights to airports, where flight safety is not sufficient. We also herad some rumors that there was a problem with one of the engine breaks. It will be clarified during the investigation. But the pilot can also be blamed for taking the risk of landing under such circumstances instead of heading to the secondary airport.
Me: Would you have landed in his place at that airport?
Pilot: We all learn lessons from such accidents. I can’t say I would have done anything different in his place, because I do not know anything about that airport. If I had landed there a zillion times, I may have had tried landing as well. We pratice such landings in simulations, but real life is always different.
Me: By the way simulation: the airport has ILS. Why didn’t he try to use the computer more for this landing?
Pilot: Good question. ILS (it is a kind of a radio signal coming from an instrument next to the runway of an airport. The computer of an airliner can follow this sign that basically “pulls down” the plane to exactly the right place) can help pilots to land more precisely. But still you have to decide on other aspects of the approach. But in a way yes, you are right, it might have been helpful for him to rely more on the instruments.

I hope this short interview was helpful for you to see more aspects of this accident.

By Szafi


1 Response to “An expert about the crash at Congonhas airport”

  1. 1 balint01 September 27, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Council imposed new rules for airline operations at Sao Paulo Congonhas beginning Oct. 1, changes that were anticipated in the wake of the fatal TAM A320 crash in July that killed 199 people.
    According to TAM, from Oct. 1 flights departing from Congonhas can only fly to destinations within 1,000 km. of the airport. In addition, all flights to and from CGH must be direct, eliminating all stopovers and connections at the airport. Operations will be restricted to 33 movements per hr., down from 46 prior to the accident and a high of 62 earlier this decade.

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