• U.S.

Skidding To Disaster

4 minute read
Adam Cohen

The final moments of last Tuesday’s American Airlines Flight 1420 were a ride through white-knuckle hell. The skies near Little Rock National Airport were being thrashed by a top-of-the-scale, level-6 thunderstorm. The plane and its human cargo–139 passengers and six crew members–were being tossed around by winds up to 80 m.p.h. And in the cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot were getting two separate wind-shear alerts. When the wheels of the twin-engine Super MD-80 finally touched down, it was on a runway made slick by heavy rain and marble-size hail.

The storm-tossed landing was a disaster. The plane skidded wildly, at one point rotating 150[degrees]. It slid off the end of the runway, broadsiding a steel tower that held landing lights. When the plane finally came to rest on a bank of the Arkansas River, it had split in three, and a fire had broken out near its left wing. As it erupted in flames, passengers fled for their lives. Nine people, including veteran pilot Captain Richard Buschmann, died–the first fatalities on a major U.S. airline in nearly a year and a half–and 83 were injured.

What went wrong? The official probe by the National Transportation Safety Board could take months. But the unofficial finger pointing got under way almost immediately. “The worst contributing factor was the pilot’s decision to go into that weather and land,” says former Department of Transportation inspector general Mary Schiavo. “At a certain point, you have to say the weather wins.” Co-pilot Michael Origel, who survived the crash, disagrees. He told investigators Friday that the plane approached through a break in the clouds and that the runway was largely visible at all times. But if the plane was facing winds of over 50 m.p.h., it was in danger, says Flight Safety Foundation president Stuart Matthews. “That’s a helluva lot of wind, and most aircraft can’t handle it.” Even American Airlines vice president Cecil Ewell told reporters, “If somebody told me there were 50-knot [57.5-m.p.h.] gusts at the airport, I would be leaving town.”

Investigators also have a list of questions about possible mechanical malfunctions. The plane’s wing panels, or spoilers, were supposed to open and slow it down during landing, but the flight-data recorder indicates they never opened. The co-pilot has said he thinks the pilot properly activated them. The plane’s thrust reversers, which also help slow a landing plane, turned on and off instead of remaining on throughout the landing. But the flight data show that the pilot, who operates them manually, may have turned them on and off intentionally to give him better control over the plane.

Conditions at the Little Rock airport may have contributed to the tragedy. The runway on which the plane landed does not have a 1,000-ft. overrun area at the end, as Federal Aviation Administration rules generally require. Nor does it have concrete foam, which some airports use to slow planes to a gradual stop before they escape the runway. And investigators are likely to ask why the steel light tower wasn’t made of frangible material, which breaks easily on impact–another usual FAA mandate. Furthermore, American Airlines will probably come under scrutiny. The pilot and co-pilot were wrapping up a grueling 13 1/2-hr. day–just shy of the airline’s 14-hr. limit–that took them from Chicago to Salt Lake City to Dallas and then to Little Rock. Was that excessive? Also, the crew may have felt undue pressure to land despite the weather. It was the evening’s last flight into Little Rock, and airlines don’t like to strand passengers overnight.

Second-guessing, however, can be tricky. Experts say there’s good reason to leave those judgments with pilots rather than outside controllers, who have less information to work with. Still, it seems tragically clear that the risky conditions demanded more caution. “In aviation,” says Schiavo, “sometimes Indiana Jones isn’t a hero.”

–With reporting by Sally Donnelly/Washington and Hilary Hylton/Austin

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