Airliner skidded length of runway before hitting tower
Pilot, as many as 8 others dead, FAA says
June 2, 1999
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (CNN) -- The American Airlines jet that crashed after landing in gusting winds skidded sideways down the runway and then slammed into a light tower as it left the pavement, officials said Wednesday.
After hitting the steel tower, the Super MD-80 with 145 people aboard split into pieces, caught fire and wound up on the edge of the Arkansas River.
The pilot of the jet, American Flight 1420 from Dallas/Fort Worth, and as many as eight other people were killed, officials said, and 83 people were injured. Fifty-one others did not require hospital treatment, and two people were not immediately accounted for
"There are fatalities. We don't have a number," said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman William Shumann.
However, a source close to the investigation told CNN said that investigators believe the death toll is between six and nine.
American Airlines spokesman Bob Baker confirmed that the pilot was among those killed in the accident. He did not release the pilot's name.
The National Transportation Safety Board was sending 20 investigators to the crash scene. The so-called black boxes -- the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder -- were recovered and had already been taken to Washington for analysis Wednesday afternoon, the NTSB said.
Officials said the plane landed on runway 4 right, heading northeasterly, and immediately went into a spin.
The jet skidded the length of the 7,200-foot long runway before hitting the landing lights and splitting into at least three pieces. The crumpled fuselage then crossed a road and came to a halt 1,000 feet from the runway on the bank of the river, spun around with its tail section facing the water.
There was no distress call from the cockpit before the landing, Shumann said.
Many of the survivors escaped through a crack in the fuselage, one hospitalized victim told CNN. She described scenes of chaos and panic. Fire broke out behind the left wing of the plane, engulfing the rear half of the cabin, said Baker, American's executive vice president of flight operations.
The accident occurred at 11:50 p.m. Tuesday (12:50 a.m. EDT Wednesday) in the midst of heavy thunderstorms,.
Flight 1420 had 139 passengers and six crew members aboard and was due to arrive at 9:41 p.m., the airline said. But it was delayed for more than two hours and arrived just as the storm was hitting Little Rock with lightning, hail and strong winds. At 11:46 p.m., wind gusts of up to 87 mph were recorded at the airport.
FAA and airline officials said it was too soon to say the accident was caused by the storm.
"The key, of course, is what exactly were the winds on the runway at the time of the approach, and that's what we really have to try to focus on," Baker said.
"Clearly they had a weather forecast from our dispatcher ... and our dispatcher had told the crew that there was weather in the Little Rock area," Baker said, "but we don't have all the pieces yet, because we don't know what the tower said, we don't know what the en route center said."
Baker said that the captain of the twin-engine Super MD-80, who was the airline's chief pilot in Chicago, had accumulated 9,600 flight hours and had flown for American since 1979, The airline did not immediately say how many hours of experience the pilot had as a captain on MD-80s.
American flies 260 MD-80s and the plane has an "excellent safety record with us and other airlines," Baker said.
The plane, registered with the Federal Aviation Administration as N215AA, had been involved in no incidents or accidents since it was purchased new by American Airlines in August 1983, according to a check of safety records by AV Data.
The maintenance records for the MD-80 indicated nothing unusual since it went into service nearly 16 years ago, said AV Data researcher Dave Richardson.
"It's been plying its trade ever since," Richardson said.
The deaths are the first on a U.S. commercial airline since December 28, 1997, when a woman was killed aboard a United Airlines 747 when it encountered severe turbulence over the Pacific.
Last year, U.S. aviation officials celebrated a fatality-free year aboard scheduled U.S. commercial flights. U.S. airlines also had one of their safest years ever in 1997, a year after one of the deadliest on record.
There were 342 deaths on major American air carriers in 1996, which included 230 people who died in the explosion of TWA Flight 800 leaving New York and 110 who were killed when a ValuJet plunged into the Florida Everglades.
Correspondent Tony Clark contributed to this report.
Death toll could reach 9 in Arkansas plane accident, FAA says
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