What Is A Tail Strike And Why Can They Be Dangerous?

A tail strike is when an aircraft hits its own tail on a runway during takeoff or landing and can be an incredibly dangerous situation. How does this occur, and why are pilots trained to avoid it?

tail strike
An aircraft experiencing a tail strike. Photo: Maarten Visser via Wikimedia

What is a tail strike?

As mentioned above, a tail strike is when an aircraft hits its tail during a takeoff or landing. When another aircraft hits an aircraft’s tail during taxi, it is a collision and not generally referred to as a tail strike.

The most common reason for a tail strike is when an aircraft has a high attack angle during takeoff or a landing. According to Boeing, this is caused by:

  • a mistrimmed stabilizer
  • the rotation at an improper speed
  • excessive rotation rate
  • improper use of the flight director
  • unstabilized approach
  • holding off in the flare
  • mishandling of crosswinds
  • and over-rotation during a go-around

Some aircraft are designed to be in these tail strike profiles, such as the Concorde, and thus have a special hidden wheel at their tail to prevent damage. Other aircraft have tail skids for operations that might cause tail strikes, such as extended versions of airframes.

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Interestingly, a study was undertaken for Boeing to examine why tail strikes occur in the pilot experience rather than aircraft design.

“The amount of flight crew experience with the model of airplane flown is a more significant factor. While the tail strike may occur to pilots with abundant flight time in a model, most occur to pilots transitioning from one airplane model to another and have fewer than 100 hours of flight time in the new model. Incidents are greatest among pilots during their first heavy-weight operations in the new model, especially when the weather is marginal.”

Tail strike
A tail strike can occur during takeoff or landing and could cause structural damage to the aircraft. Photo: Tomás Del Coro via Wikimedia Commons

Are they dangerous?

Tail strikes themselves are not that dangerous, apart from upsetting passengers or leading to other aircraft problems. However, the danger comes from the strike weakening the airframe.

Thanks to the aircraft pressurizing in cycles throughout its life, the fuselage can become weaker over time. However, this happens uniformly throughout the aircraft. If the airframe had suffered a tail strike, then the pressure seal’s weakness may evolve at that point.

This has, unfortunately, lead to some airframes failing many years after the tail strike.

Examples of tail strikes

There are two major examples of tail strikes that have lead to fatalities.

Japan Airlines Flight 123 –  Known as the deadliest single-aircraft accident in aviation history, this Boeing 747 crashed seven years after its tailstrike event. While it was repaired, the “subsequent repair of the bulkhead did not conform to Boeing’s approved repair methods.” After 10,000 pressurization cycles, the investigation found that the repair would have failed; the plane managed around 12,000 before the event. 

JAL crash
The two repairs, with the correct method on top, and the one performed below after the tail strike. Photo: Phoenix7777 via Wikimedia

China Airlines Flight 611 was another Boeing 747 crash, this time occurring twenty-two years after the tail strike event. The investigation found that the repairs were done in haste and that “rather than following the Boeing Structural Repair Manual, the China Airlines team installed a doubler over the damaged skin.”. 225 Passengers and crew died because of shortcuts.

Tail strikes are not dangerous when they occur but can have consequences many years down the line. Treating them as seriously as possible is prudent to prevent future disasters.

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