Pandemic-related delays to training have been highlighted in an air safety report following a tail-strike at Manchester Airport.
The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has published a bulletin into the events which led to the tail of the TUI Airways Boeing 737-800, G-TAWY (c/n 37246) coming into contact with the runway in March this year.
The narrowbody – carrying eight crew and 178 passengers – was a scheduled departure to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. The official report notes that the first officer, who was undergoing training alongside an experienced captain, rotated the aircraft too rapidly from Runway 23R, causing damage to the tail skid and paint damage on the aft drain mast.
The AAIB’s findings state: “The co-pilot had experienced several delays during his training which would have made it harder to learn the correct technique. His low experience coupled with a slight crosswind is likely to have exacerbated the situation.” The weather conditions in Manchester included a surface wind from 170° at 13 kt giving an 11 kt crosswind on 23R.
The report continues: “Prior to the flight, the commander and co-pilot discussed take-off including the required rotation rate and crosswind technique. Whilst on stand, with the aircraft hydraulics powered, the commander demonstrated, and the co-pilot practiced, the correct control inputs.
"The start-up and taxi to the runway were uneventful. The crew again discussed the take-off technique at the holding point, as they waited to depart. Once lined-up on the runway the commander handed control to the co-pilot for the take-off.”
The co-pilot joined TUI in 2019 after obtaining his commercial pilot’s licence. The inquiry says he completed an operator conversion course in March 2020, but his training was interrupted by COVID-19. With pandemic restrictions easing, he completed refresher training in the simulator followed by base training in the aircraft in July 2021.
After a further delay and additional refresher training in the simulator, the co-pilot’s first two line training sectors were completed on January 27, 2022. His third and fourth line training sectors were completed on March 7. The incident flight occurred two days later, on the co-pilot’s fifth sector when he had 15 hours and 40 minutes on the type.
The report continues: “The training notes from the co-pilot’s first two sectors [stated] that his rotation rate had been slightly slow and gave guidance to achieve the required 2 to 2.5°/second rate. Notes from his third and fourth sectors mentioned not allowing the rotation to stagnate at 10° and ensuring a continuous rotation to the target 15° attitude.”
The inquiry confirmed that the take-off roll was normal until V1, however as the co-pilot was concentrating on applying rudder to maintain the centreline; he thought the wind was gusty as he needed to keep adjusting the pressure on the rudder pedals.
“After V1 the aircraft started to drift slightly downwind. The commander considered that the gap between V1 and VR may not have been appreciated by the co-pilot, as it was greater than he had experienced previously, and it may have caused a degree of surprise and distraction.
“The co-pilot initiated the rotation at VR. The commander described the initial rotation as ‘a bit quick but within the normal and safe range’. However, as the pitch attitude reached approximately 9°, the commander felt the rotation rate increase markedly. He had his hands on the controls and tried to reduce the rate but was unable to prevent the tail striking the runway. Both pilots felt a bump as it did so. The crew had used performance figures for a wet runway, which generated a lower V1.”
The flight crew continued the take-off as planned along their cleared departure routing. The report says that there were no adverse indications, and the aircraft was flying normally, however it notes that the commander intentionally left the landing gear extended to focus on the flight path, but then omitted to retract it until after the flaps were retracted.
Once the climb was established, the captain contacted the cabin crew. Colleagues sitting at back of the aircraft confirmed that they had heard “a very big bang” on take-off. The commander advised air traffic control that the 737’s tail had struck the runway and they were likely to return to Manchester. He declared a PAN and requested they stop the climb at FL100 and take up a suitable hold. G-TAWY subsequently returned to its departure airport, where it landed safely and without further incident.
The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder were reviewed by the AAIB. While the CVR was used to support the timeline of events, the FDR showed the pitch rate peaked at 7.1°/second and reached a maximum pitch attitude of 13° on the incident flight. The Boeing 737 Flight Crew Training Manual states that the tail strike pitch attitude is 11°.
In official comments published within the AAIB findings, TUI Airways said the training the co-pilot received was compliant with its training policy which, due to the pandemic, required a bespoke training package which was assessed and managed by a training manager. As well as additional simulator time, the co-pilot’s training included flying the first ten sectors with a line training captain qualified to a Zero Flight Time (ZFT) standard, although the co-pilot involved in this incident was not undertaking a ZFT.
The operator acknowledged that the delays during the co-pilot’s training had not been ideal, but this had been considered when assessing his training need. TUI further stated: “It is possible that recency was a contributory factor, but the co-pilot had flown two days prior to the incident and his last take-off and landing prior to the event was at the minimum company standard expected for someone at his stage of training and with his experience. The policy to continue flight training with an experienced training captain from a long runway was deemed appropriate.”
TUI told the AAIB that it has re-emphasised to its training captains “the need for caution when conditions are not suitable for low experienced trainees to operate as pilot flying during the take-off and landing, even if this results in the training objectives for that flight not being achieved”. However, the operator noted that the reported wind for this departure was suitable at the time the take-off run was commenced. It has also taken action to ensure better training continuity.