Spanair Crash Does Not Mean the MD-80 is Unsafe

Accidents/Incidents, Spanair

There’s not much that makes me feel as sick to my stomach as I do when I see an airplane crash. I suppose it’s a good thing that it happens rarely enough that it is a headline-worthy event, but seeing the pain and suffering of all the families, survivors, and the employees just hits me in the gut. Of course, that’s the feeling I had this week when the Spanair MD-80 from Madrid to Las Palmas crashed on takeoff killing north of 150 people.

It’s far too early to know what happened here, and as in most accidents, there will inevitably be several smaller things that led up to the accident, but that hasn’t prevented speculation from all corners of the globe.

Some people are focusing on a faulty valve which was addressed before departure. (I suppose we’re supposed to forget that this was a faulty gauge that isn’t considered necessary and was simply turned off.) Then there’s this irresponsible piece entitled “Engine blamed for Spanish plane crash.” Oh yeah, this one is just priceless:

Kieran Daly, editor of Flight International, said it was premature to speculate on the accident’s cause but in the absence of dangerous weather conditions there had likely been an engine problem and the aircraft did not have enough power to pull away.

Oh yeah, clearly too premature to speculate. Right.

But nobody can top Joe Sharkey for having some of the worst coverage out there on this accident. His most recent blog post states that “Lame coverage of the MD80 crash in Madrid continues in the media.” Oh sweet irony considering he has some of the lamest.

His first post on the subject said “The plane was an MD-80, a model of aging aircraft that has had well-documented safety problems in the last year.” Oh boy, here we go with the “aging aircraft” bull again. And the well-documented safety problems (I assume he’s talking about American’s MD-80 grounding) were not a safety-of-flight issue. In that first post of his I mentioned above, he yells at Spanair authorities for not looking something up. Maybe he should take his own advice.

A quick check found that this aircraft was EC-HFP. And a visit to shows us that this plane was first delivered to Korean Air in late 1993. So, an airplane that’s not even 15 years old is aging? I think not. That’s a relatively new aircraft.

Joe also goes on to cite all the previous MD-80 crashes and asks us to “note the more recent incidents and similarities to what apparently occurred on an MD80 that went off the runway and broke up today in Madrid.”

Again, we don’t know what happened in Madrid, but I don’t see anything on the five most recent accidents that look similar to me. One had a fire in the cabin that was apparently started by someone on board. One had problems with both engines at cruise, which sounds like fuel contamination. Two skidded off the runway in bad weather. And one disappeared from radar and crashed shortly after.

This is all just scare tactics, and it has no actual value. Is there a reason for someone stepping on an American Airlines MD-80 today to be more concerned than they were last week? No way. Please try to ignore this sort of irresponsible journalism and wait until we know all the details.

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32 comments on “Spanair Crash Does Not Mean the MD-80 is Unsafe

  1. Thank you for this post, Brett. Too often during tragedies like this the media is more concerned about getting a good story than anything else.

  2. I believe Boeing said there are .13 fatal incidents of the MD80 series for every 1,000,000 take offs. Seems like a pretty solid safety record to me.

  3. You can always count on every media outlet to drag out Mary Schiavo so she can grind her bitter axe.

  4. Im from spain but live in the US. I know the crash is Spanair’s fault.
    its not a good airline. but i like the all the Mac’s. I ithink it crashed because of maiteneance.

  5. flyairdave – I agree that there isn’t much scarier than Mary Schiavo

    axel – This is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing. You have no way of knowing that it’s Spanair’s fault.

    LOLcat – Results will be posted on Monday. Sorry for the delay!

  6. Good post. I have been thinking the same thing. The one that really gets me is when a reporter writes that an incident “raises questions” about the safety of the aircraft model. They are inevitably referring to their own questions or the questions of other bystanders. In the presence of answers to these “questions” from experts who actually know what they are talking about, I don’t really think it is responsible to include in a report that an accident “raises questions.”

  7. There appears to be only one reliable piece of evidence from witnesses of the Spanair crash – the observation that the left wing appeared to seriously dip just prior to impact. The MD-80 series are notoriously demanding under low and slow flight conditions such as takeoff and approach. The wings are super critical and stall very quickly if airspeed is inadequate. The dip of the left wing is a pretty good indicator that it was approaching or actually had entered a stall.

  8. I understand that 172 or so people on board with luggage and required fuel to travel 938NM to Canary islands. Not a small number of people.

    I am not an aviation engineer, but I have noticed that the MD-80 has relatively small engines by the tail that have to work, by definition, very hard relative to larger wing engines on other passeneger aircraft models. Over 15 years, the age of this aircraft, you wonder how the engine condition compares to a similar larger engine on other models that has to strain less when used. I realize that the engine’s have maintenance regime’s and standards.

    I have always felt that the MD-80 engines had to work very hard to take-off, I live near an airport and I hear the engine sound on take-off for these planes which is far above other planes.

    I am a layman in this area so it is just an opinion. I think it is a logical avenue of investigation.

  9. It’s called sensationalism. And Crankster, you’re right, it’s irresponsible and lame.

    In general, media need to stop creating stories out of nothing (you know the kind – when you’ve finished reading the article and are left with disappointment and tons of questions because after all that sensationalizing, there’s nothing concrete and you’ve wasted 15 minutes reading it) and putting negative spins on everything (“today’s fatal fire took 23 lives, BUT THAT NUMBER COULD RISE AS FIREFIGHTERS CONTINUE SERACHING”). Uh, yeah, that’s implied when you started off the segment by saying firefighters have just begun their search…

    Their draw to drama is damn annoying, and you know what? I’ve been known to write a letter about it!

    Can I get a AMEN?!

    Oh, and what’s the average age for today’s flying aircraft?

  10. TR – Hot temperatures and a full load can reduce performance, so if something went wrong, it would have given them less of a margin of error to get things right, but I highly doubt it caused anything itself.

    The difference in engine size is actually related to the bypass ratio. Newer engines have high bypass ratios, meaning that more air gets pushed around the engine core than through it. This helps to reduce noise and improve fuel consumption and that’s why everyone does it. To look at performance, you can measure the amount of thrust that each provides.

    The Spanair plane had JT8D-217C engines which generate 20,000 lbs of thrust. To compare this, a Southwest 737-300 has CFM56-3B1 engines with basically the same amount. Yes, that’s a smaller airplane, so performance would be better, but the size of the engine isn’t as big of an indicator as it might seem. Hopefully this makes sense. It can be kind of confusing.

    Boz – Average age? That’s a really tough one to look at. In terms of MD-80s, 15 years is pretty young since that aircraft has been out of production for several years. Spanair’s average fleet age is 13.1. Other airlines will vary a lot. Northwest has DC-9s flying that are pushing 40 years old. Then again, Douglas built those planes like tanks.

  11. The media makes me sick. Five minutes after something happens they expect someone to know exactly what happen. And everyone except the experts seems to know ‘what happen’ right after an accident.

    These are the same idiots who five minutes after the polls close this November will want to know who the new President is. CNN will be the lead idiots in this area….lol

  12. I think we need Mary Schiavo to issue a quick, uninformed, sensationalistic statement (after she plugs her new book) so that some idiot journalist who only knows how to read and look good on TV will amp up the story to scare us all.


  13. I flew as a passenger on an MD80 a few years ago and it had a very worn out interior, smelled quite bad – and surprisingly none of the cabin crew could speak english. The plane seemed quite old then (about 5 years ago) and I did’nt enjoy the flight. I just wonder how long some models should be kept in service?

  14. I just flew a 39 year old plane this morning and it was in fine shape. It’s all about how you maintain the plane on the inside and out.

  15. Having worked worked in newspapers and TV news, along with having taught media and speech at the university level, I have to agree that it is a sad state when the reporting is so badly presented. The reason we see this (and this is in no way in defense of crappy journalism) is to sell their product. Think about headlines and decide if you would buy a newspaper or listen to a TV news report without a sensational headline. Hence the prevalence of ” may kill you” reports. In reality the market drives the headlines and the editors drive the journalists to seek out the sensation. Also, with the exception of very few news organizations, there are no reporters who are trained in science and technology. They use a common man heuristic which leads to this kind of bad journalism.

    Speaking as someone who was a science/engineering trained reporter, I see no problem with stepping on older aircraft. It all comes down to maintenance, not age. I have happily stepped on a refurbished Piedmont Air DC-3 and a Stearman PT-17. Speaking of that, does anyone know if there is a refurbished Boeing 707 or 727 flying the skies of the US? I need to fly those two to complete my flight of all modern Boeing aircraft (until the 787 comes out of course).

  16. This very tragic crash really seems similar to the crash on takeoff of Northwest Airlines Flight 255, in Detroit Aug 1987. That aircraft barely got off the ground, due to stalling because the plane was not properly configured for take off. The flaps/slats were not set. To top it off, the warning system malfunctioned, therefore not notifying the pilots of the error. I have always loved the MD-80 A/C, but I feel they are much more sensitive than others. I also feel they have a lesser margin of error available, compared to other A/C during take off. -Chris

  17. Jason H – Finding a 707 is going to be extremely hard unless you’re personal friends with John Travolta As for a 727, you’ll probably have to head down to Latin America to get on one of those.

    Chris B – What exactly seems similar to Northwest 255? In Northwest 255, the pilots failed to properly set the flaps for takeoff. I have seen nothing suggesting that there were problems with flap setting or anything else in that vein.

  18. Did anyone else get an email from Alaska Airlines on Wednesday (same day as the Spanair crash, arrived in my case a few hours after the crash) titled “Farewell to the MD-80”? Poor timing…

  19. Oliver – Yep, I got that. Their last MD-80 flight was today, so it certainly made sense when they scheduled that email to go out . . .

  20. CF – I’m not an expert, but it does seem very possible at this point. Supposedly, there really was no engine fire. The latest I just read from the news, the possible issue of forgetting to set the flaps is now coming up. There are a few planes that can take off without the flaps not set and not stall, but the MD-80… definitely not. I think that plane is just built different. The fuselage is very long in the front, and the wings are so far back, and appear small. Not to mention those quite heavy looking P&W engines in the back. I just feel so horrible for those who loss their loved ones. August-Sept always seems to be the time for so many airplane accidents. Possibly, cause of “Ghost Month”??? Look it up, you’ll see what I mean…

  21. Chris B – I have no seen anything talking about flaps yet. Feel free to post reputable links here if you have them. My understanding now is that investigators are leaning away from an engine fire, something that so many people jumped on as a probably cause right away. I’ll wait to see what they find without speculating any more.

  22. I searched google news and found a link to the Wall Street Journal Online, which mentions the “wing flaps” Here’s the link:

    I don’t want to speculate anymore either. I really hope they will be able to get what they need from the 2 black boxes. My heart just really goes out to those who lost their loved ones. I know they really want answers right now, too. It is sad, that also it is being mentioned that some of the deceased will never be able to be identified. That is just horrible.

  23. Chris B – Very interesting. That would make it even harder to swallow since this was a problem that has led to an accident previously. It shouldn’t be able to happen again. Very sad, if true. (Very sad, regardless, of course.) We shall see.

  24. Well it now looks like the flaps were not set right. Very sad. It may take a long time to find out (if ever) why they were not set correctly for take off. But this has happened before. Do a Google search and a lot of information on failure to properly set the flaps on take off comes up. I have been flying since 1968 and can tell the difference between now and then. Before de regulation, the passenger was treated like a king on a flight. You got to know the flight attendants names. Even the pilot would come through the plane and talk to the passengers. Now it’s like a cattle car with wings and you hope there is some one flying the plane.
    I know it is not the overworked pilots and flight attendents fault. Thanks to deregulation you get cheap tickets, but you get what you pay for too.

    As far as the MD 80 goes, I like a plane with the engines on the wing. Seeing a wing with no engines makes me feel kind of, well I don’t know, unnerving. I will take a 707 Ooops, my age is showing, I mean a 747 any day.

  25. Flight without flaps? Deadly? Try flying on one of Thai Airlines A300 jets from Bangkok to HoChiMinh City and back. I swear that big bird took off without flaps set in both take offs and I was sitting just behind the wings to see it with total amazement. The roar of the engines was something to listen to but those guys did fly without flaps. I sure was glad I was wearing brown slacks for camouflage of you know what. Surely a A300 is a much airworthy than an MD80. I had flown in enough number of DC9s that I will do my best to stay away from MD80s.

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