Ep 59 FedEx Express Flight 80

Engineering News – Electric Vehicle Remote Road Test (2:00)

This week's engineering failure is the FedEx Express Flight 80 (8:50). A fatal crash in 2009 (16:00) as not an isolated incident with the MD-11 aircraft (23:00).


Engineering News

Fedex Express Flight 80

Episode Summary

Hi and welcome to Failurology; a podcast about engineering failures. I’m your host, Nicole

And I’m Brian. And we’re both from Calgary, AB.

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This week in engineering news, electric vehicles pass the remote road test.

  • Australian National University

  • Roughly 93% of residents can travel to essential services with even the lower range of electric vehicles on the market - even people living in remote areas - without needing to recharge en route.

  • Using electric vehicles in remote areas is more feasible than expected

  • Getting diesel out to these communities - the common fuel choice in remote areas of Australia - is challenging - electric engines are simpler to power

  • This the study is still looking to unpack is the impact of unsealed or unpaved roads on electric vehicles

  • There is also still more to learn about weather impacts on electric vehicles - this could be extreme temperatures or humidity from precipitation

  • The transport sector accounts for 25% of global emissions and more than 18% of Australia’s greenhouse gas pollution

  • Fun fact unrelated to electric cars - the built environment accounts for nearly 50% of global CO2 emissions. Of that, building operations are about 27% and building materials and construction are an added 20%. Those are some big numbers. But if I’ve learned anything from 14 years working with buildings; specifically mechanical systems, they are rarely operated as optimally as possible and there’s always room for improvement.

  • If you want to read more about the electric vehicle road test study, check out the link on the web page for this episode at failurology.ca

Now on to this week’s engineering failure; Fedex Express Flight 80. The porpoising MD-11.

  • Scheduled cargo flight from Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in China to Narita International Airport near Tokyo Japan - a flight distance of roughly 2,900km, or just over 1550 nautical miles.

  • Occurred on March 23, 2009

  • McDonnell Douglas MD-11F (N526FE)

    • Three engine, wide body airliner

    • This is not the first three engine plane we’ve talked about on this show. In episode 42 we talked about United Flight 232 which was a McDonnel Douglas DC-10; the model that preceded the MD-11 we are talking about today.

    • If you haven’t heard our episode on United flight 232, we encourage you to go back and listen to it. But as a recap, the number 2 engine located in the tail experienced a fan blade separation which severed all three hydraulic lines that were used for directional controls. They were somehow able to land it though, very roughly land it, and more people survived than would have been expected.

    • That said, today’s episode about Fedex Express Flight 80, while a similar model of plane, had a very different cause.

    • There were a number of upgrades and changes from the DC-10 to the MD-11, with the most significant change being that the newer model featured a glass cockpit, eliminating the need for a flight engineer. The MD 11 also was longer than the DC-10, had winglets that improved the fuel efficiency by approximately 2.5% and made use of composite material to reduce overall weight.

    • The very first MD-11 flew on January 10, 1990 and it entered into service on December 20th of that year.

  • This specific MD-11 that crashed on Fedex Express flight 80 had an interesting history

    • It was built in 1994

    • Used by NASA as a test bed for their Propulsion-Controlled Aircraft system (PCA) in 1995

    • Operated by Delta Airlines from 1996 to 2004

    • Before being sold to Fedex in 2004. And by 2009 Fedex was the largest operator of MD-11s; today half of them in service fly for Fedex.


  • Fedex Express flight 80 crashed at 6:48am on March 23, 2009 while attempting to land on runway 34L in Japan. The weather at the time was clear but turbulent. The wind direction was consistent to the west, but the insanity varied greatly, swinging 15 knots faster or slower than normal wind speed.

  • Both pilots had extensive experience

    • Captain Kevin Kyle Mosley, 54 from Hillsboro Oregon was a former US Marine Corps pilot, had been with Fedex for 13 years and had more than 12,800 flight hours and 3,648 hours on the MD-11.

    • First Officer Anthony Stephen Pino, 49 from San Antonio, Texas was a pilot in the US Air Force, had been with Fedex for 3 years and had 6,300 flight hours and 879 hours on the MD-11.

  • Planes landing before Flight 80 reported “wind shear at an altitude of under 600 metres”, information that was relayed to the Fedex air crew.

    • Surface winds at the time were reported at 26 knots with gusts up to 40 knots

  • To counter the unstable wind speeds, Captain Mosley decided to land the plane with an approach speed 10 knots faster than normal to overcome the unstable headwind and avoid dangerous loss or lift. But as they came into land, their airspeed had fallen from 178 knots to 154 knots over about 35 metres of elevation. The plane was sinking too rapidly and First Officer Pino tried to counter by pulling the nose up to gain lift and slow their rate of descent. When he pulled up, the high angle of attack caused their speed to drop even more so he pushed the nose down again. He needed to increase thrust to maintain the approach speed, but didn’t.

  • To make matters worse, the autothrottle automatically entered “retard mode” and began slowing down the engine for landing. Pino should have restored manual power, but was too busy trying to control the plane that he didn't manage to do that either.

  • Pino pulled up on the controls to flare the plane for landing, but did it a bit too late and a bit too sharp. Realising the nose was too high, he pushed the nose back down again.

  • The plane destabilised and didn’t recover from the “bounced” landing, causing structural failure of the landing gear and airframe. When it landed, it bounced 3x before coming down on its nose (this is called “porpoising”) which resulted in the loss of directional and altitudinal control. When the gear failed, the left wing struck the ground and the plane veered to the left. The left landing gear ripped through the wing, snapping it in half as the right wing generated lift and rolled the plane to the left.

  • The fuel tanks tore open and a massive fireball erupted. In full view of passengers in the terminal no less.

  • It stopped off runway, inverted and on fire. The air traffic controller activated the crash alarm and fire trucks were at the plane in less than a minute.

  • Fire crews took 2 hrs to extinguish the blaze. By the time they were able to reach the cockpit an hour later, both the captain and first officer, the only people on board, were killed. Captain Mosley died of major injuries sustained during impact. First Officer Pino died from smoke inhalation shortly after. This was the first fatal aircraft incident in Fedex’s history.

Other crashes and issues with the MD-11

  • This wasn’t the first MD-11 that bounced on landing, flipped over and burned. 12 years earlier in 1997 FedEx Express flight 14 had a very similar accident in Newark New Jersey.

    • After the Newark crash, the FAA required all MD-11 operators to be trained in a newly developed bounce recovery technique. This technique required pilots to increase engine thrust and hold a positive pitch angle when they recognized a bounce. This allows the plane to float down the runway until it can land smoothly.

    • Both Captain Mosley and First Officer Pino received bounce recovery training in 2006.

    • When JTSB (Japan Transport Safety Board) investigated the crash and came to an interesting realisation. Pino probably never even knew the plane was bouncing.

    • The MD-11's cockpit was unusually far forward for the centre of gravity. Because of this, you couldn’t always tell from the front of the plane what the back was doing.

    • The plane’s data recorder registered an increase in engine thrust and pitch just before the third touchdown, or final bounce, suggesting an attempt at a bounce recovery manoeuvre, but by then it was too late.

    • It’s believed that sleep, or lack thereof, might have played a factor in the crash. Captain Mosely is believed to have had only 4 hours of sleep in the day before the crash, and First Officer Pino even less. And remember, this landing happened just before 7am so they were on an overnight flight that left the Philippines at 9:44pm the night before. In fact, about 45 minutes before the crash, the cockpit voice recovered captured them joking about being tired.

    • Investigators also noted that while First Officer Pino had several hours on the MD-11, most of those were as a relief pilot, taking over in the middle of long haul flights. And that he had only flown an average of 2.5 landings per month.

    • There was another similar crash to Flight 80 and the Newark crash. The 1999 China Airlines Flight 642 crashed while landing in Hong Kong during typhoon Sam. To be fair to the MD-11, the crosswinds at the time of landing exceeded specifications. The plane flipped onto its back and caught on fire. Luckily only 3 passengers were killed.

  • In fact, there were a number of issues with the MD-11s

    • McDonnall Douglas had promised fuel efficiency when the plane entered service in 1990. But that was a myth and the range was 500 miles less than expected.

      • They did this by shifting the plane's centre of gravity further back or aft than other commercial aircraft.

      • They also installed a fuel-ballast tank in the horizontal stabiliser to improve fuel efficiency, but this inhibited cross wind performance, as we have seen with some of these failures to date.

    • This was corrected in 1993 with fuel consumption optimization software, but it was too late to save the MD-11s reputation.

    • Operators also found the planes difficult to fly. It was hard to override autopilot and when the pitch became unstable in flight, the planes would buck wildly up and down for several minutes before getting control again.

    • It was easy to deploy the slats in cruise flight by accident

      • In 1993 China Eastern Airlines Flight 583 went into server oscillation from accidentally deployed slats while in cruise flight over the Pacific. Two passengers were seriously injured and later died.

    • Intense concentration was required to prevent all kinds of undesirable effects on touchdown

    • One of the issues was that in order to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency, it had an unusually small horizontal stabiliser. This made the planes prone to wild changes in pitch, which were harder to counter due to the small pitch control surfaces

      • The 1999 Korean Air Cargo Flight 6316 went into a rapid descent when the pilot tried to adjust the altitude of the flight. They were not able to recover the plane and all three occupants on board and five people on the ground were killed.

    • They also had to land the planes at 154 knots, which was about 20-30 knots (or 14-20%) faster than comparable aircraft.

      • Upon landing, the 1999 FedEx Express flight 87 rolled down the entire runway before rolling into the Subic Bay in the Philippines. Excessive approach and landing speed were the probable cause.

    • Unrelated to flight, the MD-11s also had poor flame retardant properties from the metalized mylar insulation that allowed a fire to spread out of control mid air. Causing the 1998 Swissair Flight 111 to crash into the Atlantic near Halifax Nova Scotia. The fire had started at the front of the aircraft from improper wiring of passenger entertainment systems added by the airline.

  • McDonnell Douglas tried to use software to correct these issues but they were not entirely successful.

  • After only 10 years of service, the MD-11s had an accident rate 15 times worse than similar airliners.

  • No one, from the engineers to the FAA, wanted to admit that they designed, built and sold a plane that was unstable. And they ended up not having to. By the 2000s, sales on the MD-11s were wrapping up in favour of Boeing’s 777. And a few years after that, any MD-11s remaining in service were flying cargo, not passengers.

So there you have it, FedEx Express Flight 80. A combination of lack of sleep, lack of landing experience, and the MD-11's troubled design led to a fatal crash that happened over a matter of seconds.

For photos, sources and an episode summary from this week’s episode head to Failurology.ca. If you’re enjoying what you’re hearing, please rate, review and subscribe to Failurology, so more people can find us. If you want to chat with us, our Twitter handle is @failurology, you can email us thefailurologypodcast@gmail.com, you can connect with us on Linked In or you can message us on our Patreon page. Check out the show notes for links to all of these. Thanks, everyone for listening. And tune in to the next episode, another engineering marvel for episode 60, the Kicking Horse Spiral tunnels train route over the Rocky Mountains. It’s gonna be full of all things trains and mountains. Even our new article is about trains and mountains.

Bye everyone, talk soon!