What Is A Tail Strike?

Put simply, a tail strike is when the tail of the aircraft makes contact with the runway surface. This can happen either during take-off or landing. Whilst this may just feel like a bump, it can be a serious incident. It is not a common occurrence, however, with pilots well trained to prevent it from happening.

Delta 767 tail strike
A tail strike is when the rear of the fuselage makes contact with the ground. Photo: Tomás Del Coro via Wikimedia

Hitting the ground

A tail strike occurs when the rear of the aircraft fuselage hits the runway (it is nothing to do with two aircraft colliding). It can occur during take-off if the nose is raised too early or too sharply. Or during landing, if the nose is raised too sharply. Strong winds can also be a contributing factor.

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Protecting against a tail strike

Some aircraft have design features to help prevent a tail strike, but avoidance comes down mostly to pilot training and action. Some aircraft have a small attachment, known as a tail skid, at the base of the tail to absorb any contact. And systems on most aircraft will detect whether a tail strike has occurred and alert pilots.

Delta 767
The 767 has a tail skid at the rear of the fuselage to help prevent a tail strike. Photo: Richard Snyder via Wikimedia

Concorde is also a good example. It had a set of retractable wheels at the tail to protect it from a tail strike. These were necessary as Concorde required a steep take-off and landing angle, increasing the chances of a tail strike. It also protected the same thing happening with the engines.

Concorde plan view
Concorde has small retractable wheels at the tail. Photo: Arpingstone via Wikimedia

The main defense, though, is pilot training. The technical aspects of take-off and landing, as well as the size of the fuselage, differ between aircraft types, and pilots must be well aware of this. In a study into the causes of tail strikes, Boeing found that flight crew experience was the most significant factor. Most tail strikes occurred when pilots transitioned to a new aircraft type with minimal flight time on that type.

What damage can a tail strike cause

A tail strike in itself is not normally a serious incident. Contact is usually brief and not forceful enough to cause major immediate damage or disrupt the aircraft’s motion.  However, it can have longer terms effects through damage to the airframe.

After a tail strike, the aircraft must be thoroughly inspected and tested for damage and repairs made.  In particular. damage to the hull layers, which strengthen it against repeated pressurization cycles, can be very serious. There are several incidents where failure to detect or repair such damage has led to catastrophic failures some time later.

Some tail strike incidents

Simple Flying reported recently on a simple case of a tail strike on landing. This involved an Azur Air Boeing 767 landing in Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. The pilot reported wind shear during the approach, which led to an increased pitch angle. As a result, the tail struck the runway on landing and dragged for just over 100 meters.

An Azur Air 767
An Azur Air  Boeing 767 – you can see the tail skid at the rear. Photo: BriYYZ via Wikimedia

Another incident occurred in November 2019. A Singapore Airlines A330 suffered a tail strike when landing at Yangon International Airport. There was no immediate damage but, in line with the potential severity of such an incident, the aircraft was withdrawn from service pending full inspection.

More serious accidents have occurred. The worst was Japan Airlines flight 123, in 1985. The 747SR suffered a sudden decompression after departure from Tokyo Haneda and crashed, killing 505 of the 509 passengers and all crew. The cause was found to be inadequate repairs to the rear fuselage following a tail strike incident seven years previously.

Would you like to share any more details, or examples, of tail strike incidents? Let us know in the comments.