The news last week of a Southwest Boeing 737 (but I repeat myself) overrunning the runway end at Burbank is a story of the triumph of technology over the failings of human beings. The jet landed a little long on a short runway with a tailwind in heavy rain...yeah, I know, right? Runway 8 is the only runway at BUR with an approach, so, that might explain the tailwind. Burbank being nestled in among the LA basin hills explains a lot of the rest.
The end result wasn’t mass causalities. It was, well, a broken runway and damaged airplane. The part of the runway that broke was the Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS) a technology that is essentially frangible runway extension material that very quickly slows the plane down in a linear manner, so it’s a quick stop but not a sudden one.
It’s hard to say how bad it would have been, but it could have been bad. EMAS has come to the rescue numerous times in the past few years, most notably in 2016 when it stopped a chartered 737 carrying VP candidate Mike Pence from going into Flushing Bay.
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The EMAS wasn’t there in Burbank in 2001 when a Southwest 737, Flight 1455, overran that same runway, went through the fence and wound up on the highway that runs perpendicular to the runway end. Nobody was hurt, but it could have been bad. That flight was a case of getting slam dunked on final with a very slight tailwind, challenging circumstances, to be sure, and one where it’s especially hard for the pilots to transition from working their hardest to manage speed and descent while simultaneously preparing mentally for a go around. Tough circumstances, to be sure.
I’d guess similar pressures came into play on this one, though the tailwind component was even more pronounced, the flight landed in heavy rain, braking action was compromised and, oh yeah, it was a short runway, a short runway that has the only approach at Burbank. It will be interesting to see what the NTSB says about all of those factors and how they contributed to the mishap, which will surely be classified as an accident, as the underside of the 737 was damaged in the arresting bed.
Are there lessons for us little airplane pilots? Absolutely. Manage your speed. Know your landing runway length. Know every variable that will make your landing longer than intended, including any allowable tailwind component, a runway that’s wet, icy or snowy, an ATC-initiated steep approach and the performance parameters of your plane. If any or all of those factors are present, it might be best not to count on you doing all the math and adding in the various landing distance factors, which in some cases could more than double the required landing distance, but instead to find a runway long enough that you don’t have to do so much math. And remember, it’s always okay to go around, so long as a go-around can be done safely, which is almost always. If in doubt about whether it’s okay to go around, refer to the previous sentence. And if anyone gives you grief about going around, that’s not you. It’s them putting their ignorance on display. After all, you’re there to have the discussion, which in my book is the best argument there is.