For a 90 minute flight the final approach and landing usually take less than four minutes. A Boeing company analysis of all accidents (not just Boeing-made aircraft) from 2001 to 2010 confirms your fears – those last few minutes account for 36% of all accidents with fatalities.
The actual landing, comprising under a minute of flight, is responsible for 22% of all fatal accidents. (This is included in the 36% already mentioned.)
Pilots joke that a good pilot is one that has the same number of landings as take-offs. By that standard airline pilots are very good indeed. In 2000 Boeing pointed out the practical implications of the high levels of safety that are now the norm: “The risk of being involved in a commercial jet aircraft accident where there are multiple fatalities is approximately 1 in 3 million. To put this in perspective you’d have to fly once every day for more than 8200 years to accumulate 3 million flights.”
These figures show that even though landing is the most dangerous phase of the flight, the systems and safety measures in place mean that the actual level of risk is low.
What you can do
The single largest thing you can do to improve your personal safety during landing is to understand the details of how to assume the brace position correctly as this is not, in our view, adequately explained in the pre-flight safety briefings and the safety chart in the pocket in front of you. This is covered in our article: Brace yourself properly – save your life!
You will also find it helpful and reassuring to read these articles:
The landing experience
The landing phase is similar to take-off in that the wings have their shape changed to ensure maximum lift at a low speed (to reduce the landing to a safe speed). This is accompanied by a lot of noises as things lock into place, and generally a good deal of noise from the hydraulic system. From the cruising altitude the aircraft will gradually descend. As it gets down to a pre-determined height it will gradually slow down from the high speed of cruising to the relatively low speed required for the landing.
The jet engine sound will change too as the power is varied to control the aircraft as it slows down. It is often not understood that when flying at its very slowest safe speed the aircraft will use thrust vectoring, which requires maximum engine power. The result of this will be that the engine tone can be at odds with the perceived speed of the aircraft.
Apart from a few airports like the inner-city London City airport (where the angle is steeper) the landing approach angle is 3 degrees. In addition to the instruments and navigation system, the lights at the side of the runway change colour depending on the angle that they are viewed from, so the pilot receives visual confirmation that the angle of approach is correct. The pilot flies the plane down at a controlled angle and then substantially tapers off the descent and pulls the nose of the aircraft up just before contact is made with the ground. (This is called the “flare”. It also positions the aircraft so that the main landing wheels absorb the shock of landing, and not, for instance, the nose wheel.)
Depending on the skill of the pilot, and the weather conditions, this contact with the ground may be almost imperceptible, or it may on occasion be quite a heavy thump.
The aircraft must land facing into the wind but the wind frequently does not co-operate by blowing exactly down the runway. This results in the aircraft flying at an angle to the wind. The problem is that the landing wheels do not steer on commercial aircraft, so the plane must straighten up once it has landed, so that it goes along the runway and not off into the field. Boeing recognise three techniques for doing this: fly at an angle to the runway, then straighten the plane with respect to the runway just before touch-down; on a wet runway, land the aeroplane still at an angle and then straighten up to face along the runway after touchdown; or lastly, straighten the flight path with respect to the runway by banking the aircraft gently until touchdown, then immediately level the wings.
There is quite a lot going on in the cabin during crosswind conditions and the priority is to put the plane down, keep the wings level, and align the aircraft along the runway. A gentle touch-down is not always on the to-do list!
At this point the aircraft is on the ground and the trim is reconfigured to keep it there. So far so good. But it is still going very fast for a ground vehicle: 200 to 300 km/h (125 to 190 mph). The priority becomes “slow down and stop”. Air brakes help a bit, which are big flaps that stick out into the airstream.
The brakes are capable of stopping the aircraft on their own, but to reduce the stress on the aircraft, reverse thrust is also used. Reverse-thrust is noisy.
Reverse thrust is usually achieved by putting huge shields behind the engines, to force some of the air flow forwards. They work. On the A380 only the two engines closest to the body have reverse thrust features fitted.
Once the aircraft speed has been reduced adequately then the very powerful brakes on the main landing gear are employed.
You are down safely, slowed down to a very modest speed and the aircraft can then taxi slowly to its designated parking spot.