CHARLOTTE, N.C. — "We just dropped," USAir Capt. Michael Greenlee recalled Tuesday. "It was like having the rug pulled out from under you . . . . I looked out, and I'm looking up at trees and a small hill."
Seconds later, Greenlee's DC-9 jetliner--apparently caught in fierce, shifting winds generated by a thunderstorm--slammed into the ground, broke into three pieces and burst into flames, killing 37 of the 57 people on board.
Greenlee's vivid account of the July 2 crash of USAir's Flight 1016 came during the second day of National Transportation Safety Board hearings held here this week as part of the investigation to determine what caused the crash.
While official conclusions won't be reached for months, sources close to the probe say investigators are virtually certain that a violent, low-level wind-shear condition known as a microburst generated strong tail winds that stripped the plane of the lift it needed.
However, uncertainties remain as to how well the cockpit crew reacted to the dangerous weather conditions, and Tuesday's testimony by Greenlee--and his co-pilot, James Phillip Hayes--did little to dispel those concerns.
Greenlee testified Tuesday that "everything was normal" as the jet took off from Columbia, S.C., at 6:16 p.m. for the 26-minute flight to Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. Hayes was at the controls.
The captain said that although he and Hayes noticed several small rain showers as they approached Charlotte--and Greenlee mentioned the possibility of wind shear to his co-pilot--neither man was particularly concerned about the weather.
As Flight 1016 began its final approach to the runway, air traffic controllers broadcast two warnings about wind-shear conditions to the left of the DC-9. And on the same frequency, two other jetliners announced that they were postponing their takeoffs until the dangerous conditions had passed. Nonetheless, Flight 1016 continued descending toward the runway.
"We started to pick up some light rain," Greenlee said. "Visibility was not quite as good . . . . A few seconds after that, it began to rain extremely hard."
Moments later, the captain said, he and Hayes both noticed a sudden increase in the plane's airspeed--a change in winds that NTSB investigators say is strong evidence that the jetliner was entering the leading edge of a microburst.
Greenlee said Tuesday that he didn't recognize it as such, but because the rains were obscuring visibility and because the winds were now shifting to the left side of the plane, he ordered Hayes to abort the landing and fly a curving route to the right for another approach.
Hayes said Tuesday that he was responding properly--turning to the right, applying full standard power and pulling the nose up, with the wing flaps set at 15 degrees--when the DC-9 suddenly plunged earthward "as though it was suspended on a string and somebody dropped it."
What had happened, investigators believe, is that strong tailwinds from the microburst were racing past the wings so fast that the plane was stalling.
According to a cockpit voice recorder recovered from the wreckage, Greenlee responded with a highly unorthodox command: "Push it down"--apparently ordering Hayes to lower the plane's nose.
On Tuesday, Greenlee said he couldn't remember issuing the command and Hayes said he couldn't remember hearing it.
However, a flight data recorder also recovered from the wreckage shows that one of the men pushed the control yoke forward for a moment and the plane's nose dipped accordingly. Sources close to the probe said this has to be considered a highly unusual maneuver in either a go-around or an attempt to escape a microburst.
The plane's nose bobbed up again as Greenlee shouted "fire wall power"--a call for full emergency power. In another unusual move, Greenlee, without warning, grabbed the throttles to make sure his final command was carried out.
But it was too late.
The plane slammed into the ground, skidding into a grove of trees.
"The first impact was not too hard. Then we hit hard, real hard," Greenlee said. "Once we came to a stop, I kicked open the door, it fell away, and there was nothing back there."
The cockpit had broken free from the rest of the fuselage, much of which was engulfed in "a huge fireball," Greenlee said.
The captain said he helped Hayes--whose left foot was injured--to clamber out of the wreckage, and then, along with flight attendant Richard Demary, began assisting others.
Flight attendant Shelly Markwith, who suffered severe leg injuries in the crash, said she "saw the captain and called for him to help her."
Investigators said Markwith told them that Greenlee "shook his head and did not assist her. She rolled back over on her stomach and 'combat crawled' away from the airplane."
Greenlee remembered it differently, telling the hearing panel that "Shelly looked up at me and said she thought she was going to bleed to death." He said he reassured her that she was going to be all right.
Others, he said, were beyond assistance.
"I saw a few folks I obviously couldn't help," he said.