FedEx retires MD-10 that once did a very late gear deployment at Chicago O’Hare
In the brain of truly dedicated avgeeks, mentioning the MD-10 with tail number N559FE might trigger a unique memory. Back in October of 2012, the newly-converted MD-10 (a former DC-10) was on approach to Runway 28 at Chicago O’hare international airport. Chicago Airport Spotter filmed the approach. The only problem was that N559FE was approaching the field without its gear deployed. The tri-jet finally lowered its gear less than a mile and a half from the runway at about 200 feet AGH and touched down smoothly just 36 seconds after the gear handle was likely slung. Check out the video below
It was a small moment of infamy for a DC-10 that otherwise faithfully served the aviation industry for almost 47 years. According to Planespotters.net, tail number N559FE first flew in July of 1973. It first flew with Western Airlines, later transferring to Capital Air, the Hawaiian Express, followed by World Airways, Arrow Air, Air Hawaii, then American Airlines. It was converted to a freighter in 1999 and joined FedEx where it served the next 20 years. FedEx converted the DC-10 to an MD-10, adding a glass cockpit and reducing the required cockpit crew component from 3 to 2.
FedEx retired the jet on December 18th, 2019. It is now ‘based’ in sunny Victorville. Soon it will be joined by a number of other MD-10s and A310s as FedEx rightsizes and modernizes its fleet. FedEx is replacing the jets with more modern Boeing 777F and 767-3Fs. It also allows the company to cut costs as it adapts to a changing global air freight market.
Ok, so the MD-10 is retired. Why was the late gear deployment such a big deal?
You see, most airliners on approach put their gear down at or before the final approach fix, typically around 5-7NM from the runway. That gives a full 2-3 minutes to ensure the gear is deployed and checklists are completed for landing. With a visual pattern, gear is deployed before turning base and often earlier to bleed off speed.
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In the case of this FedEx MD-10, it looks like they deployed the gear just 36 seconds before touchdown. At this point, they were probably only about 200 feet above the ground (assume a 3 degree glide slope). Assuming 2.7-3 miles a minute, the jet was less than 2 miles from the end of the runway when it started to deploy the gear. On most jets, there is a GPWS warning system alerting the crew that the gear is not deployed and in the proper configuration.
While no one on our staff flies for FedEx, it would be hard to believe that this approach didn’t violate company procedures. Most airlines require stabilized approach criteria. This includes airspeed, power setting, configuration, and of course gear. At airports like O’Hare, it can be more challenging than most to comply with both standard procedures and controller requests. Controllers can push pilots to keep their speed up in order to squeeze as many aircraft onto the runway as possible in a set time. Busy airspace should never take precedence to safe operations though. It is something both controllers and pilots understand and appreciate.
We’ve seen some speculation on what might have occurred in the video but we never saw anything more official posted than a rumor on various forums. Because of that, we’ll refrain from comment on why the gear deployment was so late in the case shown on the video. We’re just glad that gear was down and locked in this case…a gear deployment that late leaves no margin for error. Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing, right?