Mis-balanced Takeoff Causes Alitalia A320 Tail Strike


An Alitalia Airbus A320 aborted its takeoff at Milan Malpensa Airport in Italy after suffering a tail strike attributed to mismatched seating of passengers. According to the Italian aviation investigation authority ANSV, the single-aisle airliner pitched up at just 42 knots on its Rome-bound flight. The crew aborted the takeoff and no one was injured on what would have been the third and last leg of a Rome-Hamburg-Milan-Rome trip, flown in support of a cruise company.

The ANSV reported that 171 passengers boarded in Hamburg, of which 68 were bound for Milan and 103 for the final destination, Rome. To speed the disembarkation process in Milan, boarding agents seated the Milan-bound passengers in the front of the cabin, and all the Rome-bound passengers in the center and rear segments. Also, the Milan passengers’ luggage was loaded in the front cargo hold of the Airbus to facilitate unloading in Milan. So the Airbus left the gate for the Milan-Rome flight with all its passengers and luggage in the center and aft sections of the airplane.

Because Hamburg was outside the airline’s usual network, weight-and-balance data was not electronically uploaded, but rather was delivered in emailed, printed form. Handlers in Milan mistakenly assumed the data was appropriate for the final leg of the multi-sector trip.

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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  1. I wonder if it was still within legal weight and balance.

    My Maule, if loaded at aft end of moment arm near gross weight will have very little weight on the nose gear and a fully extended strut at rest.

    Either way good decision making by the crew. Well done.

    • Maybe the tail strike during safe abort speeds was the best outcome possible here. I am just a low time GA pilot but this sounds potentially very dangerous.

    • I was pretty sure it was FOD from a departing jetliner ahead of them that blew out a tire and the tread was ingested into the engines on that side, causing catastrophic failures.

      • It was indeed FOD but the tire debris hit the wing creating a shockwave in the fuel tank which ruptured it from inside, causing a massive fuel loss that was then ignited by sparks in the wheel well and the engine afterburners. On the other hand don’t see the relevance of cruise ship pax.

        • Heavy baggage was loaded just before takeoff for late arrivals, so there was a possible aft CG issue. Also, an engine was shut down too early. (I did a lot of reading on this recently.)

          There were several issues in the accident chain, which is why a 4-engine jet couldn’t clear a modest hotel building.

        • “On the other hand don’t see the relevance of cruise ship pax.”

          Perhaps the aggregate of the cruise ship passengers and their luggage (putting it nicely) exceeded the default passenger weight used by Alitalia and was a contributing factor. I have been on flights where passengers are reseated when possible CG issues catch the eye of the second officer or others in the flight crew. My readiness to volunteer a move to the front cabin to help with CG issues have always been politely denied. 😊

          In my experience many times the lowest revenue passengers are computer assigned seats towards the rear and back of the aircraft.

  2. The Champion Tri Traveler (Tri Champ) of late ’50s vintage had practically no weight of the nose wheel when taxing if you had a passenger in the rear seat. I remember having to ask the pax to lean forward so the nose wheel would touch the pavement occasionally for steering. Got my PPL in one.

  3. I would think that a minimally trained cabin crew might have noticed all the empty seats in the front and the gate agent should have also. Somebody should have said something. Even the rampies should have wondered why it was loaded the way it was. Even an alert flight crew might have noticed that it was awfully lightly loaded forward. It could have resulted in a pitch up and stall on takeoff. Too many folks asleep at the wheel.

    • Greetings Seagull,
      The ANSV reported that 171 passengers boarded in Hamburg. That is a full AB320. The problem was the cargo. The cargo door is usually the last door closed, long after the pilots do the walk around. Unless someone told them all the cargo is in the aft bins or it was reported on the weight and balance, they would have no way of knowing. I also suspect there is more to this story, such as the the stabilizer was not set properly. I have 11,000 hours in the 320 series. It is really hard to get it that far out of balance.

      • Whoops: I need to correct my previous comment. I missed the part about off loading passengers in Milan. The Hamburg to Milan flight was OK. The tail strike occurred after they off loaded the front passengers and only 103 stayed on board. So with hardly anyone in the forward seats they did have an aft center of gravity. Not good.

        • SOP to my general knowledge is for cabin crew to watch for imbalance in cabin, even to the point of noticing heavy pax in one end of cabin (football team for example, Canada-US ‘football’ anyway).

          I presume stabilizer trim angle is to be set based on CofG shown on weight and balance.

          • Decades ago there was much activity for real-time measuring of CofG based on weight on each landing gear.

            Even the most promising methods such as strain gage between lugs forged into gear truck/strut structure were not stable.

      • This smells kind of fishy to me. If there was that much weight in the aft part of the aircraft why didn’t it sit on its tail a the gate or when taxiing? I don’t know much about the Bus, but does it make sense to you that it was’t until it started its takeoff roll that it struck its tail? Would 42kts of airspeed make a difference? Thanks.

        • HI Don,
          If the pilots did a walk around after the passengers in the front deplaned they would have noticed the nose strut extended, which would have been a clue, but could be easily ignored. While taxiing if they hit any bumps they may have noticed the nose was light, but it would be easy to ignore that. My guess is the stabilizer setting did not take into account the aft CG. If the computer had an aft CG setting for the stabilizer then they would also know the CG is too far aft. At the beginning of the takeoff roll they should have been using forward stick pressure and around 40-60 kts they would release the forward stick pressure. That is standard procedure. It appears that when they released the forward stick pressure is when the tail strike occurred.

  4. Weight and balance computations are all done electronically for each flight by dispatchers, based on booked seating assignments and load report from the ramp. In my experience, these conditions sometimes do not reflect the actual situation. This seems a gross example of that. Seating and cargo loading changes made by agents in Hamburg would not have affected the first leg of the flight. However, incorrect seat assignments and cargo loading “for convenience” may not have been translated for the the takeoff numbers in Milan. It is good fortune the crew decided on an abort – had the A320 become airborne, it may have been impossible to control a pitch-up with the obvious aft center of gravity. In my years of airline flying as PIC I often noted very aft or forward loaded aircraft by the way the plane handled on the ground, and returned to gate when I suspected a loading error… I am not familiar with the way the A320 “handles” on the ground with an extreme aft CG, but I’ll bet the nosewheels were practically bouncing off the ground during taxi.