Last updated: 03:10 PM ET, Fri October 28 2016

EMAS: The Magic Material That Saved Pence’s Plane

Travel Technology | Paul Thompson | October 28, 2016

EMAS: The Magic Material That Saved Pence’s Plane

Photo courtesy of the NTSB

At about 7:40 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday, an Eastern Airlines Boeing 737 that was charted for Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s campaign landed at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, and over-ran the runway. Thankfully, all 48 passengers on board walked away safely, thanks to a special material at the end of the runway.

The material, known as Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS) was designed to safely stop a plane that overruns a runway at speeds of 70 knots or less. As the plane rolls onto the EMAS, the plane’s wheels pulverize the material, creating resistive drag against the speed and weight of the plane, slowing it down with minimal damage to the plane or its passengers. It is made of cellular concrete, and comes in 4x4 foot-wide blocks.

New York Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye said about 80 sections of the EMAS were destroyed. “Arrester beds are FAA-required installations at the end of runways to do exactly the purpose that they served tonight, which is to slow down an aircraft that is approaching the end of the runway.”

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As of this June, EMAS is installed on 115 runways at 66 airports around the world. The FAA likes a 1000-foot buffer zone at the end of runways, but at some airports that were built before the jet age, the runways aren’t long enough for that. So instead, EMAS is used to prevent planes from performing what is officially called a runway excursion.

When Pence’s plane was pulled from the EMAS on Friday morning, it was remarkable that there wasn’t any severe damage to the plane. It was even towed away on its own landing gears. Without EMAS at LaGuardia, the plane would have gone off the runway into muddy grass, and likely would have collapsed at least one of the landing gears — and from there, the results could have been catastrophic.

Political news site Politico says that journalists traveling aboard Pence’s 737 during the campaign have experienced several rough landings. One journalist even called the previous landing on Thursday, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, “especially bad” as it bounced off the runway before settling to a landing. According to the Politico story, a Secret Service agent joked “93 percent chance we crash” while another passenger said, “Brace for impact.”

EMAS was created by Zodiac Aerospace, and is credited with saving 10 other aircraft prior to Pence’s as of June this year. It was first successfully tested when it brought a Boeing 727 to a stop in 1996. Including the 37 passengers and crew on Pence’s campaign plane last night, EMAS is credited with saving 282 lives. It has successfully stopped every aircraft that has needed it.

Zodiac says runway excursions occur two to three times a month, and are responsible for 97 percent of all runway accidents, including 83 percent of all fatal runway accidents. The installation of EMAS was an FAA requirement at airports with short overrun areas. People like to criticize the governmental entities that cover air travel, but EMAS is surely an example in which we can all agree something good was done for us all. 

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