Spanair Aircraft Did Not Have Flaps Deployed; Not Necessarily the Cause of the Accident

The preliminary report is in, and it appears that the Spanair aircraft that crashed on takeoff last month did not have its flaps extended. While it’s not clear if this was actually the cause of the accident, if it were, it would be eerily similar to the crash of Northwest 255 more than 20 years ago, as Chris B first mentioned in the comments in my first Spanair post. So what exactly are flaps and why do they matter? I think it’s time for a brief tutorial. I encourage other to jump into this discussion in the comments section.

EC-GNY Spanair McDonnell Douglas MD-80At left, you can see a Spanair MD-80 taking off the right way, with its flaps extended for takeoff. But I should back up. What are flaps? If you look at the back half of the wing, you’ll see that there are hinges and then pieces of the wing tilted slightly downward. Those are the flaps, and what they do is create a larger surface area for the wing on takeoff. This helps create more lift at slower speeds, so basically the airplane can takeoff earlier than it would without the flaps. NASA has a simple but effective tutorial on this subject.

Airplanes can take off without flaps, but they just need to get going faster. So, if you have a really long runway, you might be ok. But hot weather also reduces lift, and different aircraft types need different distances to get in the air. So, it’s not cut and dry. I’m sure right now, the authorities are running the numbers to see what exactly happened here.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, there is a flap warning when they aren’t extended for takeoff, but it could possibly have been malfunctioning, ignored, or misinterpreted. We just don’t know, but we’ll find out soon enough.

(Photo credit: EC-GNY Spanair McDonnell Douglas MD-80 by David el Nomo via Flickr)

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