Recalling hard landing at BWI in 2009

In its forced retirement, the Boeing DC-10 sits just off a main runway at BWI Marshall Airport, a grim reminder of the slim margin between a successful landing and a tragic one.

Stripped of its logos, engines and usable parts, the wide-body jet — once a chartered troop carrier — now serves as a training platform for firefighters, paramedics and police officers. Rescuers hope that in its second life, the plane can help save human lives.

No one died four years ago in the violent landing of World Airways Flight 8535. In fact, news accounts at that time characterized the incident as a "blown tire." But for 15 minutes, flying low over the suburban landscape, the passengers and crew practiced survival techniques and prayed.

Like the Asiana flight that crash-landed Saturday in San Francisco, killing two 16-year-old girls and injuring 180 passengers, the flight four years ago from Leipzig, Germany, to BWI was uneventful — until the landing.

Carrying 168 passengers, troops returning home from deployment in Iraq, World Airways Flight 8535 came in over Howard County in the early afternoon of May 6. The wind was calm, the temperature was 63 degrees and visibility was 10 miles.

The plane lined up on Runway 10, at 10,502 feet, BWI's longest. As the 130-ton plane dropped below 500 feet, cockpit crew members disengaged the autopilot. At 1:02 p.m., the nose landing gear made contact with asphalt for the first time.

"The touchdown felt firm," pilot Craig Gatch told National Transportation Safety Board investigators. "The nose of the aircraft felt like it came up uncontrollably and pitched up fast and tight."

The plane slammed down again — Boeing estimated the force at 3.2 Gs — blowing a tire and leaving debris on the runway.

In the cabin, ceiling panels fell, oxygen masks dropped and smoke appeared.

"Go around. Go around," shouted co-pilot Kirby Lottridge and flight engineer Brent Foster, captured on the cockpit voice recorder.

"Maximum thrust," replied Gatch.

Two of the plane's three engines immediately responded to the throttle. One did not.

The plane rose slowly to 2,000 feet.

"[Expletive], I can't believe we did that. ... Let's declare an emergency," said Gatch before asking the control tower for permission to make another approach.

In the cabin, soldiers and flight attendants took stock.

"Then began the silence as most prayed, some held hands, and others wept," wrote S.J. Knowles on the air traffic control website 11 days after the incident. "I think it's safe to say most of us [me included] sat in anticipation and pondered the irony of surviving a war 6,000 miles away only to meet our maker while landing back in the US."

With Runway 10 still littered with debris, BWI controllers directed the plane to swing toward the South River, just below Annapolis, and then turn northwest to line up with Runway 33L.

"I never thought I'd actually have to do this," Gatch said to his cockpit crew.

Flight attendants stowed broken equipment and showed passengers how to brace for a crash.

The landing was uneventful: "I waited for a command to evacuate the aircraft, but it never came," flight attendant Robert McMunn told NTSB investigators. The cabin erupted in applause.

While the passengers were unharmed, First Officer Lottridge was carried from the plane and required back surgery to repair damage caused by the impact.

"After the waiting we were shuttled to the terminal, cleared customs and waited an hour or so for our luggage," Knowles wrote. "At this time, the standard military gag order was issued to the masses as we were informed that the news media was waiting for us. We all did our part, shaking the hands and thanking the wonderful USO reps and past American war veterans awaiting us while stating to the news media that any questions should be routed through Bolling [Air Force Base] Public Affairs office and how we were just glad to be home."

Inside the cockpit, Foster said, "I think she'll fly again, boss."

"You do?" Gatch replied.

"Oh yeah, with a little tweak here and there," Foster said.

But the damage was extensive: crumpled and torn body panels, crushed nose gear, battered electronics and equipment bay, compromised pressure bulkhead.

In December 2010, the plane minus its salvageable gear was donated to BWI Marshall by Dodson International Parts, which had obtained the DC-10 from Global Aerospace Insurance Co.

The NTSB ruled that the accident was caused by pilot error, saying Gatch overreacted to the initial hard landing. The agency said fatigue from Gatch's schedule with World Airways that had him crossing 36 time zones over 11 days contributed to his misjudgment. It also criticized the pilot's DC-10 training program as "protracted and fragmented."

Gatch could not be tracked down to comment on the report's conclusions.

World Airways, based in Georgia, continues to fly, serving as a charter cargo and passenger carrier. The military remains one of its top customers.

At BWI, the damaged jet sits just beyond an overflow parking lot, not too far from where it made its final landing.

Airport officials and the BWI Airport Fire Department not only use it for regular training, they also invite mutual aid responders from nearby counties to take part in mock disaster drills. The fuselage also is used by the Maryland State Police SWAT team, the FBI and the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

"No one else in the region has one," said Dan Gordon, president of Local 1742 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. "When our crash trucks pull up to practice putting out a fire on a plane, they're pulling up to a real plane. It's not using your imagination anymore."

Every three years as part of its accreditation, BWI stages an all-day drill, with actors and scenarios testing emergency crews.

"We do everything from dealing with grieving families to all the logistics involved in a full-scale emergency," said airport chief Paul Wiedefeld. "The ability for responders to walk in and see a situation they might one day face is very important to us."

In that way, Gordon said, they've turned something bad into something good.

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