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A380 Video: A Lucky Break

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Investigators looking into the A380 and CRJ collision at JFK International got a lucky break: Someone was evidently videoing where the collision occurred using a cellphone camera. The rest of us got something astonishing to look at. What surprised me is how the force of the collision spun the CRJ nearly 90 degrees on its vertical axis. I would have expected it to get nudged pretty well before the top of vertical stabilizer sheared off against the side loading of the impact.

But evidently, that structure is a lot stronger than that. Photos of the tail damage to the CRJ (a 700) show that the tail is well trashed, but hardly sheared clean away at the top. Similarly, the A380 lost about a foot of its left wing, including the winglet. Think about the repair bill on that. Here's another video of the A380 damage.

The differences in weight probably have something to do with this. The A380's 610,000-pound empty weight is more than eight times the CRJ's max gross of 73,000 pounds. The weight Delta could be as much as 12-fold when you consider the A380 was fueled for takeoff and the CRJ had just landed.

Just looking at the A380's numbers makes me glad I'm not driving it around an airport like Kennedy. Because of its size, the A380 is limited in the taxiways and runways it can use, according to the airport's 36-page operating guide for the aircraft.

This document is worth scanning to gain a sense of how it complicates inbound and outbound ground controller operations. And actually, the more I read it and digested the taxi route and runway limitation, the more I got the impression that this airplane is just too big for the design constraints of airports like Kennedy. I wonder if all that effort is worth it. Given how JFK gets jammed up on the ground during peak periods, I also wonder how disruptive an A380 arrival or departure is. The last time I flew out of Kennedy two years ago, the 767 I was on blocked out on time, then required 90 minutes to get to the runway. This was pre-A380.

With a 262-foot wingspan, the A380 hangs over the 75-foot-wide taxiway by about 93 feet, which equals the entire wingspan of a Gulfstream V. Boeing is having similar challenges getting airports qualified for the new 747-8, with a 224-foot wingspan. Let me just pencil that one into my short list of airplanes I'd rather not have to taxi.

Skip, you earn your money before you even get to the runway. And a tip of the hat to inbound and outbound ground at any airport handling this giant.

To see an example of A-380 cockpit camera video, click here.

Comments (37)

The physics is that the CRJ is balanced on the mains and will pivot around itself quite easily (just like standing on only one brake in a a Grumman-American and spinning around into a parking place).

Yea, the repair and inspection cost on the A380 will be in the same scale as the aircraft itself; Gigantic!

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 13, 2011 7:55 AM    Report this comment

It's all about situation awareness. Notice how the CRJ has stopped short of the gate area with the tail sticking out into the taxiway. The three hold short lights seen to the left of the CRJ are for outbound aircraft. The nose of the inbound jet is just past these lights leaving the majority of the airplane still near the taxiway. The A380 was probably right on the centerline strip of the taxiway and the captain assumed this provided clearance. The CRJ pilot didn't nose into the ramp area enough to clear the taxiway. Situation awareness has a 360 degree envelope.

The same issue happens at LAX everyday when pilots clearing 25R stop short of the outer taxiway waiting to get in touch with ground control with the back end of their airplanes still hanging out into 25R.

Pilots look forward out of the cockpit windows and forget about the remainder of their airplane behind them.

Posted by: Steven Ravine | April 13, 2011 8:18 AM    Report this comment

Those sure are a lot of numbers. And what are these taxiways of which you speak? I didn't see any taxis, just airplanes. All of this clearly happened on the runway.

Thanks, Paul, for providing a much better analysis of this situation than anybody in the mainstream media could hope to. I was watching one segment where the reporters were comparing the two planes using tiny cardboard cutouts for scale. They were also reporting that there were only four A380s in the world. Sigh.

Posted by: Ryan Lunde | April 13, 2011 9:12 AM    Report this comment

All this technology in an A380 and no cameras on the wingtips? Even my lowly Toyota has a camera to help me not hit stuff in the parking lot.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 13, 2011 10:41 AM    Report this comment

I would be surprised if the airfrance captain is not blamed for the accident. If you are driving a car or a bus into an intersection with the tail end of a car has not exited then the fault is very clear. It is the same whether the pilot is cleared to take-off on a runway and an airplane has not cleared the runway.

Size does not matter, the pilot is in command. As the military say, you are in charge or on charge.

Posted by: Christopher Basham | April 14, 2011 4:38 AM    Report this comment

It does not matter what size of a vehicle you drive. If you enter an intersection and strike the tail of a car that has not exited, it is clearly you fault. If does not matter whether you drive a bus a car or a truck. Rules of the road apply to all.

Furthermore, if you are cleared to take-off and an aircraft has not exited the runway it is the pilotís responsibility to prevent an accident by refusing the clearance. The military says it succinctly:

You are in charge or on charge.

Posted by: Christopher Basham | April 14, 2011 4:55 AM    Report this comment

Perhaps in France it is acceptable to trust the government to keep other traffic out of your way while taxiing. In the USA, the government controller does his best to keep planes from hitting each other on the ground, but it is still up to the Pilot In Command to avoid hitting obstacles.

I like the idea expressed by Mark Fraser to put cameras on the wing tips of this and other huge airplanes. It is a relatively simple solution to a clearly difficult problem. For really distracted pilots a computerized image analysis system to alert the driver of an obstruction would put a little icing on this cake.

Posted by: Paul Mulwitz | April 14, 2011 5:36 AM    Report this comment

I find it more than a little disturbing that the focus of the investigation seems to be on where and why of the CRJ, when it's obvious that the 380 was going WAY too fast for conditions (see some of the Central California multi-vehicle accidents during the tule fog months for another example).

If you can not stop in time to avoid hitting something, you are going too fast. This goes for the mommy in the minivan, the yuppie in the SUV, or the maniac in whatever his or her choice of vehicle is: If you hit someone or something ahead of you, you are going too fast. And no, spinning out and backing into something does not count as someone else's fault, especially if that someone else is a cement pillar. It shouldn't matter one whit WHY the CRJ was where it was. It may have been awaiting clearance to enter the area (perhaps the controller dozed off? That hasn't been unheard of recently). He may have just not fired off the jets to get him moving into the spot. Whatever the reason, it does not abrogate the responsibility to remain clear of obstruction by the A380 pilot. It would be the same as providing the following defense: "Gee, yer honor, I wanted that parking spot, but the person ahead of me got to it first. So I shot him."

Sorry, but that don't fly, even in France.

Posted by: Roger Lee | April 14, 2011 7:03 AM    Report this comment

Roger Lee, That was my thought too, the massive A380 would have been unable to stop for any "surprise" (plane, baggage truck, ground grew) that might have been wandering around on that busy ramp that night. Going that fast on a busy ramp at night is NOT something that I would have expected from a seasoned PIC put in charge of a brand new expensive A380...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 14, 2011 8:11 AM    Report this comment

Roger, I think you'll see the investigation cover all of the factors. All you've seen or heard is the comment on the CRJ position. I'm sure the 380 will get a look, too.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 14, 2011 8:21 AM    Report this comment

Actually, the A-380's (and the 777-300's) do have video cameras in several locations on the outside of the airplane, although I don't think they have any on the wingtips. The purpose of the cameras is to help the Captain taxi the airplane, specifically to help him keep the main gear astride the centerline.

As for speed, when you are that high up, it can be deceptive! I flew the C-5 for 9 years, which has a cockpit height the same or perhaps a bit greater than the 380. We used the groundspeed readout on the INS to have an idea how fast we were going - it just didn't look all that fast from 'way up there.

One night at JFK, in a 767, I was offered the option of making a turn onto a different taxiway in the middle of a crowded conga line, back in the days Paul speaks of when out-to-off times regularly ran to 2 hours or more. Clearances looked a bit tight for my taste, so I availed myself of the Port Authority Duty Officer, who happened to be roaming the airport in his yellow car, as is usually the case. I'm glad I asked him to check it out, because had I taken that turn, we would have been reading this same story 6 or so years ago! (mind you, that is not the DO's real job out there on the tarmac, but he was willing to play wing-walker that night!)

All of that said, the stopping power of the 380's brakes is indeed impressive.

Posted by: Anthony Vallillo | April 14, 2011 8:32 AM    Report this comment

A bit of a fright for those on the RJ! And no warning so I bet there will be some boxed ears and sore necks.

Posted by: john hogan | April 14, 2011 8:40 AM    Report this comment

My instructor would get upset if I splashed a wheel in a puddle of water while taxiing. Same for bouncing brakes.

Posted by: Shahryar Saigol | April 14, 2011 9:04 AM    Report this comment

JFK has always been a bit of a madhouse, especially at peak times and one of those occurs in the dark. Waiting 1:45 to get to be #3 for takeoff and having them change runways can be a bit of a bummer. The mix of traffic is unusually varied and intense. In some aircraft (DC-8-61/63/71/73, B-747) you can't see the wing tips from the cockpit. It is important in any wide body or other aircraft with wings that extend over the edge of the pavement you are taxiing upon, to keep track of what is alongside the runway.

Having cameras that assists the aircraft during taxi to remain on the centerline of the taxiway may tend to keep the eyes of the crew focused inside the aircraft. It is one of those unconscious tendencies created when the aircraft designers install devices for a particular purpose. It is easy for a crew, who is trained on that equipment to think, ďIf they spent all that money on a camera and a display to keep the aircraft on centerline, perhaps it is important that we watch the display?Ē

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | April 14, 2011 10:11 AM    Report this comment

Where were the eyes of the Air France Crew while they were taxiing at a brisk, but not unusual clip down the taxiway? Absorbed in the checklist? Absorbed in the camera keeping that monster taxiing down the taxiway? You kind of have to wonder if they were keeping an adequate watch outside the aircraft.

For some reason, keeping watch outside the aircraft was less of a problem when we were not relying on cameras to keep the nosewheel on the centerline. It would seem reasonable that if the A-380 crew were aware of the collision potential presented by the RJ that they would have stopped or modified their taxi until the collision potential was removed. Clearly, the RJ was visible, even from the lofty perch of the A-380 cockpit. The question is; was anyone who had the power to prevent the collision actually looking?

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | April 14, 2011 10:13 AM    Report this comment

As they say, everything would have been OK if the RJ were another six feet into the ramp, or the A-380 was aware of the fact that it was not. Also, the RJ clearly did not understand the significant risk of stopping at that point on the taxiway in proximity to another runway/taxiway. It was probably standard procedure to hold in that position before being directed to a parking spot. It is unlikely that this was the RJís crewís first arrival into the JFK ramp and they probably felt reasonably comfortable stopping where they did.

Isnít this sort of thing supposed to be prevented by ASDE? I guess they donít have that at JFK yet. We canít expect the controllers to be aware of every possible collision scenario on the airport. However, you have to ask, didnít anyone think that the normal stopping point in the entry throat into the ramp might create some collision potential? The airport configuration is also going to take a hit for putting the RJ in such a position in the first place.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | April 14, 2011 10:21 AM    Report this comment

To Thomas Olsen, "anything except and A-380 had been breezing down the taxiway". The CRJ wasn't out of place for any "normal sized" airplane and the crew of the A-380 presumably are aware that their airplane is a bit bigger than most. I don't think the CRJ crew is at fault in any way.

Posted by: Barton Robinett | April 14, 2011 10:39 AM    Report this comment

Be careful about judging the speed from the video. I think it may be playing back a little faster than real time.

Posted by: Jim Howard | April 14, 2011 11:33 AM    Report this comment

Just for clarification, I donít think the RJ was necessarily to blame for the collision. We might fault the carrierís management for not recognizing the collision potential of stopping aircraft at that point in the ramp entrance. Did the carrierís management make that potential threat known to their crews?

What concerns me the most is that the A-380 crew seemed to have no awareness that the RJ was a potential collision threat. If they were aware, why didnít they do anything about it?

Courts, lawyers and bureaucrats will eventually attribute each participantís responsibility in some months after they complete their investigation. If one of the parties decide to sue, it make take years before a court makes a judgment about who was responsible and how much. In the meantime, I would submit that we should probably be more concerned about how to rationally prevent such events in the future, rather than making hard and fast judgments about blame.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | April 14, 2011 11:35 AM    Report this comment

It certainly appeared the A380 was taxiing at a brisk pace, but it sure stopped quickly after the impact. Its still in the camera frame with the RJ. Also, did anyone not notice the white pickup truck crossing in front of the RJ just before the impact. Possibly the crew saw the potential conflct and stopped or a ground handler stopped the RJ although its not apparent from what we have here. Big hit whatever the cause.

Posted by: jan burden | April 14, 2011 12:24 PM    Report this comment

It is interesting to note the movemennt of a ramp service vehicle crossing the path of the CRJ and the possibility the CRJ was holding short as the vehicle cleared. An unavoidable circumstance from the CRJ perspective. In most editied video clips the ramp vehicle is not seen as it is in and out of the frame very quickly. Perhaps another one of those "chain of events" scenarios when elimination of any one event would change the outcome.

Posted by: jerome lawson | April 14, 2011 1:32 PM    Report this comment

Tom, could the A380 crew have lost the CRJ's lights in the typical sea of lights around the terminal? They do have a nice high perch, but I've been into JFK at night and you're right, it's a madhouse.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 14, 2011 1:39 PM    Report this comment

"See...and....Avoid" At night, Dallas Love, cleared to taxy from Signature to Rwy 13L... as we almost entered the parallel taxiway...the lights on skyscrapers in downtown DAL momentarily disappeared in my left windshield. (Horrible thought: Something is moving on the parallel taxisay.) I hit the brakes as the UNLIT wingtip of a Hawker passed inches in front of my C-206 propeller. "DAL Ground, I have a Hawker that just missed me taxying without lights on the taxiway you just cleared me upon!" Gnd Ctrl:"Roger. Just follow that Hawker to Rwy 13L" Me:"GND.. you've got an unlit airplane operating NORAD on the taxyway, and you cleared me on that route without concern?" SWA FLT departing 13R in a hurry to get to gate: "WE think you're doing a GREAT JOB, Ground-Control!" Gee thanks, SWA! That's a real contribution to aviation-safety! (ATC refused to discuss it further.) See...and ...AVOID! Everyone shares the responsibility.

Posted by: George Horn | April 14, 2011 1:48 PM    Report this comment

Seems like the big machine syndrome at the aerodrome. I recall watching a similar incident at Oshkosh several years back as a P-51 chopped off the tail of a brand new Rockwell commander on the taxi way in front of him. We have all done not so smart things and lucked out. But the age of computers keep heads distracted in the cock pit far to often. Doesn't make any difference how big or small your machine is, the flight manual has all the info and the airport diagram shows the constraints. Sad for all concerned. The PIC has responsibility that goes with the command. (So does the SIC} Lots of gotchyahs in lots of places not just..JFK,EWR,ORD,LAX,ATL, just to name a few.

Posted by: Unknown | April 14, 2011 10:29 PM    Report this comment

P Schmidt

Posted by: brunO | April 14, 2011 10:32 PM    Report this comment

It appears the CRJ is off the taxiway and past the apron markings. It also appears the A380 isn't going as fast as some of you might think. While we are all used to taxiing at a snails pace with our Cessna 172's all commercial aircraft taxi at higher rates of speed and it is safe and efficient. More than likely the ground markings have not yet been modified for this size aircraft and even with everyone in the right, the wingtip is over the allotted space given. It is surprising something like this didn't happen sooner. Just glad no one was injured or killed. Another few feet with the A380 fueled for overseas flight could have lit up the night sky for miles!! It's all speculative at this point as to what really happened to cause this but time and investigation will tell and then we can point fingers!

Posted by: Robert Norris | April 15, 2011 12:03 AM    Report this comment

Well, it is one way for Bombadier to make the big boys sit up and take note.

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | April 15, 2011 5:14 AM    Report this comment

PAUL: Could the RJ have been lost in the sea of lights in the area? That is a possibility, but the RJ clearly had a beacon operating and that is pretty specific and certainly designates an airplane. It seems likely to me that the left seat occupant of the A-380 was likely more focused on the camera(s) than outside.

According to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joxQkOSkToI there are two cameras available for taxi help in the A-380 and neither of them provides a lot of help about what is going on with the wingtips. Both cameras appear to be focused on keeping all the wheels on the pavement. While that is important, what about where the wingtips are going?

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | April 15, 2011 8:47 AM    Report this comment

The website with information on the A-380 camera displays are at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joxQkOSkToI

The right seat occupant in that aircraft probably does not have a great view of what is going by on the left hand side of the aircraft except at some distance. I don't know the exact observers seat configuration in the A-380, but an "extra" pilot looking out the left side could be very helpful in such circumstances. Especially if the left seat occupant is trained to taxi by monitoring the camera displays inside the aircraft.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | April 15, 2011 8:53 AM    Report this comment

The video with the A-380 camera displays can be found by searching A-380 cockpit and one of the choices should be a Feb. 8, 2007 video of an A-380 landing. The cameras are shown at about 1:57 into the video.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | April 15, 2011 9:00 AM    Report this comment

Given the parallax issue with a wing tip that far off to one side, I bet the margin of error for judging collision risks is huge compared to a C172. I reckon I'm +/- two feet in the Cessna which is about 1/8th of the distance from my eye to the tip. Plus I've always got the wing in view and mostly a nice shadow off it to help. But if its even close to what I judge to be 2 feet I'm slowing to a crawl. I can generally put a wheel on the grass too :)

1/8th of an a380 wing is about 16ft - and without the benefit of those other visual cues. Seems to me that the safe visually-judged margin in the a380 would have to be more like 50 or 100ft to be comfortable.

Like most things I expect you get better with experience but maybe these guys were also getting a bit complacent.

Posted by: john hogan | April 15, 2011 9:32 AM    Report this comment

I fly for an airline that operates for Delta out of that same ridiculous area at JFK. Air France parks at the International terminal right next door. In Delta's infinite wisdom they have made a large "U" shaped temporary tunnel that has space for something like 25 CRJ aircraft, but only uses 2 gates. Getting into this space uses 3 taxi ways. I remember taxiing out to 4L with the Air France A380 directly behind us, we had a small maintenance issue and had to pull into the small pad adjacent to the end of the runway. Once we got parked in the pad I looked out the left side of the aircraft and here comes the A380s outboard engine! So we asked the tower if he thought we'd be ok or were we going to get nailed if we we stayed there. He swiftly put us on the runway to taxi back around the line to park back at the pad, but I seriously doubt the A380 would have stopped to ask if they would would have hit us, they would have just kept taxing, and I'd much rather have the tail get hit by the wingtip than the cockpit get cracked by the outboard engine. Air France just happens to be parked by Delta's crazy overpacked area, Emirates' A380 doesn't have this issue because they are in an area that was designed for large heavy aircraft and they have a much easier taxi to the usable runways.

Posted by: Erik Otterson | April 15, 2011 9:37 AM    Report this comment

The main problem is ground control cleared whom, where? Was the CRJ stopped by GC for the pickup crossing in front of it? Who cleared the pickup in front of the CRJ. I imagine GC cleared the 380 to taxi when the CRJ was stopped? GC error. GC must have cleared the pickup in front of the CRJ. If so, then GC told the CRJ to "hold." The GC tapes will surely clear this up, and I wonder why they have not already been published? So GC is responsible for the pickup (unless the guy was just totally out of control, at night) GC is also responsible for the CRJ and the 380. True, the pilots of the 2 planes, and the driver of the pickup should be guided by GC, but also situational aware. But GC is also supposed to be responsible for situational awareness to a greater degree... The FAA is not completely free of fault. Over and above proper markings and operations on the airport, they seem recently to have adopted the idea that planes turning off the runway are to stop immediately and hold to contact GC before proceeding onto the next taxiway or ramp. Not a good procedure. It was better when we rolled onto the taxiways and ramps and continued as cleared, rather than abruptly stop and wait for GC, while our tails may be (actually are) still sticking out without regard to the guy cleared to pass behind us. Lots of blame here, and I still wonder why GC tapes have not been released before the accident, while the tapes afterwards are?

Posted by: Bryce Campbell | April 15, 2011 4:16 PM    Report this comment

I was working at Airbus when the A380 was under development. The potential for taxi incidents was a major discussion point at the time (there were others). I'm surprised a taxi incident hasn't occurred sooner. If I remember correctly, the airplane was designed to ride pretty high to keep the wings out of conflict most other airplanes. The big concern however was the potential conflict between the wings of the A380 and the tail of other aircraft. By the way, complicating taxi even further is that the distance of the wing tips from the ground changes quite a bit with full fuel tanks. Again, if memory serves it's something like 7 feet.

Posted by: Dana Nickerson | April 15, 2011 9:01 PM    Report this comment

You can see that A-380 cockpit video at the URL below, just paste this into a browser window:

snipurl.com/27sugp

Worth mentioning is that the first part of this video is just horrid. I've shot some bad video, but nothing this bad, with regard to camera shake. Must have been awfully turbulent. (Need a monopod...)

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 16, 2011 6:37 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I understand what you're saying. But with all due respect, such prognostications of Air France's portion of the investigation ring hollow when the header on my browser says (now, as well as when I first read it) "Giant Squashes Bug". Perhaps something like "A-380 pilot watching TV during taxi operation, nearly kills 50 people, including XX children!" We mustn't forget the children on the CRJ, you see. Or perhaps "Airbus 1, Canadair 0". Or, for those of us who seem to be unable to avoid taking a cheap shot: "Liberal Media Bias Proven as Airbus clips CRJ with its LEFT WING! Film at 11!" OK, enough silliness for now. Oh, and Paul: I'm unable to see that video. Evidently snipurl.com is either down or not liking my Mac. Can I get a full URL, perhaps? Thanks.

Posted by: Roger Lee | April 16, 2011 4:01 PM    Report this comment

OK, I put the video link up in the body of the blog. Works now.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 17, 2011 12:20 PM    Report this comment

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