A United Airlines Airbus A320 aircraft has sat idle on the ground at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston since late April, but the facts surrounding this aircraft are quite unsettling. Not only did this aircraft suffer a tailstrike upon landing due to pilot error, but subsequent pilots operating this aircraft missed the damage on the tail, utilizing it for eight more flights before it was pulled from service.
United Airlines A320 Tailstrike At Houston Went Undetected For Eight Flights
On March 22, 2023, United Airlines 1091 landed in Houston (IAH) from Mexico City (MEX). During landing, the tail of the Airbus A320 (registration N1902U) struck the runway surface. None of the 151 passengers and six crew members onboard were injured and the aircraft taxied to the gate.
Less than two hours later, the aircraft was in the air again and operated eight more segments until extensive tail damage was noticed in Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) on March 25, 2023. From DFW, the aircraft was ferried back to IAH where it continues to sit.
Per the Aviation Herald, on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, the National (NTSB) released its final report, blaming pilot error on the tail strike:
The first officer’s failure to maintain the correct airspeed and pitch attitude during landing which resulted in a tailstrike.
Here are more details from the NTSB report:
United Airlines flight 1091 sustained a tailstrike while landing at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (KIAH), Houston, TX. The flight was a regularly scheduled international passenger flight from Mexico City, Mexico to KIAH.
According to the flight crew, the captain was the pilot monitoring, and the first officer (FO) was the pilot flying when they were cleared for the visual approach to runway 27 at KIAH. The airplane was in the landing configuration and on a stabilized approach at 1,000 ft. above ground level (AGL). About 60 ft AGL the captain noticed the airspeed begin to decay and stated watch your speed. The FO subsequently pitched the nose of the airplane down and added a little thrust. About 30 ft AGL, due to a higher-than-normal rate of descent the captain commanded flare, flare, flare. The FO flared the airplane which resulted in a firm landing. As the airplane rebounded from the firm landing the spoilers deployed resulting in a nose high attitude. In an effort to correct for the nose high attitude, the captain and FO pushed forward on their respective sidesticks.
The FO stated that the ground spoiler deployment coinciding with the firm touchdown resulted in an airplane nose-up pitch attitude. As a result, the pitch attitude increased until the tail struck the runway. After the tailstrike, the remainder of the landing and landing rollout were normal with no risk of runway overrun or excursion.
The tailstrike resulted in abrasion damage over an area of about 19 feet long by 1 foot wide along the aft lower fuselage. An inspection revealed substantial damage to the aft pressure bulkhead and frames.
I have so many questions:
- What training gap(s) caused the tailstrike in the first place?
- What happened to the visual walk-around before a flight?
- How could 19 feet of damage be simply overlooked?
- Was United’s maintenance team also derelict?
- Did the NTSB pinpoint fault via the Quick Access Recorder (QAR)?
For the sake of United and every pilot involved, I sincerely hope the damage was not clearly visible. Because if it was, there is such negligence on display then it is not unreasonable to begin to ask questions concerning systemwide safety.
Damage from a United A320 tailstrike went undetected for eight subsequent flights before the aircraft was finally pulled out of service. Not only is the pilot error upon landing concerning, but the failure to recognize the damage after is extremely alarming.
United generally does not comment on safety-related incidents, but if it chooses to provide any further context to Live And Let’s Fly, we will update this story.