Mistakes by a fatigued cockpit crew probably caused the 1999 crash of an American Airlines jetliner in Little Rock, Ark., that killed 11 and injured 105, federal officials said Tuesday.
The principal errors were the decision to land at Little Rock National Airport despite severe thunderstorms and the failure to activate and deploy wing-top spoiler panels that would have improved braking on the rain-slick runway, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
Contributing to the accident, the board said, were the weariness of the pilot and co-pilot, the decision to continue the landing despite excessive crosswinds and an excessive power setting once the thrust reversers were deployed to slow the plane on the runway.
The Super MD-82 jetliner careened out of control after touching down and slammed into a steel light tower, breaking into flaming pieces before skidding to a halt on the banks of the Arkansas River.
The captain, Richard Buschmann, a highly respected veteran pilot, was among the dead. The co-pilot, Michael Origel, suffered a broken leg.
The crash on June 1, 1999, occurred during the first day of a three-day flight sequence for the cockpit crew.
Buschmann and Origel reported for duty at 10:30 a.m. in Chicago. They flew to Salt Lake City, then on to Dallas/Fort Worth. After a two-hour delay, Flight 1420 took off at 10:40 p.m. for Arkansas with the two pilots, four flight attendants and 139 passengers on board.
By the time the plane neared Little Rock, the crew had been on duty about 13 1/2 hours. Studies by NASA and the Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit research foundation based in Columbus, Ohio, have concluded that a pilot should not be on duty more than 12 hours. Pilot unions agree.
As Flight 1420 prepared to land in increasingly stormy weather, air traffic controllers issued two wind-shear alerts, warning the pilots of powerful, erratic gusts that could swiftly change direction.
"When the second wind-shear alert was received, the flight crew should have recognized that the approach to runway 4R should not continue because the maximum crosswind component for conducting the landing had been exceeded," the NTSB's report said. "The flight crew should have abandoned the approach."
Jim Barnett, a former NTSB chairman who now works as an aviation safety consultant, said later that "attempting to race a thunderstorm to an airport is like racing a locomotive to a grade crossing. Even if there's a tie, you lose."
Nonetheless, as was his prerogative, Buschmann continued the approach.
For some reason, neither he nor Origel remembered to turn on the spoiler system.
The spoiler system flips up wing-top panels an instant after the plane touches down, destroying the wings' lift and markedly improving the effectiveness of the brakes.
"The spoilers did not automatically deploy because the spoiler handle was not armed," the NTSB said. "The captain failed to manually extend the spoilers when they did not deploy. . . . The lack of spoiler deployment led to problems in stopping the airplane."
The board said the pilots did deploy thrust reversers in their attempts to stop the plane, but they applied too much power.
As a result, the turbulent reverse blast stopped the smooth flow of air over the plane's rudder and vertical stabilizer, control surfaces in the tail that provide much of the steering as a plane slows.
Flight 1420 veered from side to side before sliding off the end of the runway, breaking up and catching fire.
"The flight crew's degraded performance was consistent with the known effects of fatigue," the NTSB said.
At the end of its list of conclusions, the NTSB echoed a theme familiar in many of its crash reports, once again criticizing a lack of oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration.
More FAA personnel are needed to watch over the airlines, the report said.
"Effective FAA oversight of American Airlines' MD-80 training and line operations has not occurred," the board said.