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Check Your Numbers! The Day a Lack of Attention To Detail Made For a Bad Day At SFO

The crew failed to calculate the proper takeoff numbers, causing a jumbo 747 to hit a pier at the end of the runway.

This airline training video dates back to July 30th, 1971. It features a Pan Am Boeing 747 called Clipper America.  The flight was for a planned departure to Tokyo.  Due to performance miscalculations by the crew, the aircraft used the improper flap setting and based their calculations on a runway that was actually 1,000 feet shorter than anticipated.  The plane failed to achieve the required rotation speed by the end of the usable runway. The plane, weighing 197,000 kilos rotated after the end of the runway.  It hit piers and threshold lights as it attempted to lumber into the air.  Three out of 4 hydraulic systems were damaged and the fuselage was breached.  A hunk of iron went right through the back of a passenger seat, which happened to have no passenger in it at the time. The aircraft was badly damaged by collision.  Clipper America was forced to return to SFO to make an emergency landing at the same airport.


Due to hydraulic failure, the aircraft only had 1/6th of its control capability.  In the video, you’ll see that there is barely any flare as the plane attempts to land.  Gear that was damaged on departure caught fire on landing . With no nose wheel steering, the aircraft drifted off the runway, where the fire from the botched landing was actually extinguished by dirt.

An evacuation was started once the aircraft came to a full stop. Crew miscommunication delayed evacuation. It took about 30 seconds for the first slide to be deployed, and about 45 seconds before the first passenger exited the plane.  Some of the door slides failed to deploy and others deployed incorrectly.  Then the plane tipped onto its tail, lifting the front door slides and causing them to become almost vertical. This resulted in serious injuries sustained by several passengers. Emergency vehicles can be seen rushing to the site of the accident.

The bottom line is that it was a bad day…all caused by a lack of attention to detail.  What’s the lesson here?  Double check your takeoff data, pilots!

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