Investigators focus on American jet's data during landing
June 4, 1999
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (CNN) -- The flight data recorder from the American Airlines jet that broke into pieces after skidding off the runway indicates possible mechanical irregularities during the landing.
Investigators late Thursday said the plane's flight spoilers -- devices that kill the lift on the wings to give more breaking action -- did not deploy during touchdown and that the pilot turned the thrust reversers on-and-off seconds after touching down.
Investigators refused to speculate on the significance of the data.
"Those are facts and there has been no analysis done on any of this," National Transportation Safety Board member George Black said.
He said the flight data recorders contained 27 to 28 seconds of information about the landing, before losing transmission.
The recorders indicate the thrust reversers were deployed at the time the plane touched down but seconds later they "were cycled from deployed to the unlocked position two times," Black said.
Thrust reversers when deployed deflect air forward to help decelerate the airplane. Eight seconds before the plane lost data, the recorder shows that the left thrust reverser was deployed while the right one was not. The spoiler lever also was in "an abnormal position," Black said.
"I'm not going to speculate about what this means," Black told reporters.
The plane was landing amid a ferocious thunderstorm with powerful wind gusts and dime-size hail falling in the area. The control tower had issued two wind shear alerts to the crew.
Nine people were killed, including the pilot, when Flight 1420 skidded about 5,000 feet -- veering to the left -- on the runway at Little Rock National Airport, hit airport landing lights, crossed a road and came to a halt 1,000 feet from the runway on the bank of the Arkansas River.
Investigators said they spoke with the air traffic controller and he said the plane looked "OK" upon landing, but it disappeared in the rain and mist about halfway down the runway so he did not see the accident, Black said.
Black added that investigators on Friday are to interview the co-pilot, first officer Mike Origel, to find out more about what happened. Origel suffered a broken leg during the accident.
"Twice during the approach a pilot commented that he had lost sight of the runway," said Black. "There was heavy rain reported, wind shear alert advisories and the runway visual range was reported to be 1,600 feet."
The plane had 2,400 gallons of fuel at the landing -- plenty enough to fly to alternate airports in Nashville or Dallas, Black said.
But despite the harsh weather, the plane landed at about the "right spot" and in the middle of the runway.
Investigators have listened to the conversation between the control tower and the crew and were analyzing that information to further determine the events leading up to what caused Flight 1420 to skid off the runway.
Teams also will continue studying the so-called "black boxes" and other evidence from the crash site to help determine the primary cause of the accident.
From evidence gathered so far, investigators said, it is clear the crew was given regular weather updates "to help in there decision making about their flight and their approach," said Black.
"The bottom line is the flight crew makes that decision (to land) based on the information they get from the ground plus what they see on their own radar and with their eyes out the windshield," he said.
Black said data show a level-6 thunderstorm, the most intense category, was "was beginning to enter on the airport property" at the time of the accident and "then a few minutes after, it was centered, probably during the early rescue efforts, ... on the airport."
But he emphasized the crew did not know the storm was a level-6 when the plane approached the runway. The flight was carrying 139 passengers and 6 crew members.
Among the nine people killed was the pilot, Capt. Richard Buschmann of Chicago. Buschmann was a 20-year veteran with American Airlines described as "very, very experienced.
The names of the other victims, six women and two men, all but one of them from Arkansas, were released late Thursday by the Pulaski County coroner.
They included six members of an elderly tour group and a student who was traveling with a 25-member Baptist college choir that entertained Kosovar refugees on a two-week swing through Europe.
The crew had put in 13 1/2 hours of duty prior to the accident, starting its day in Chicago, where Buschmann was the airline's chief pilot, then flying to Salt Lake City and Dallas before the trip to Little Rock.
Mary Schiavo, a former FAA inspector general, told CNN pilot "fatigue" might have played a factor with the pilot "just wanting to get the plane and the flight home, wanting to get the flight finished."
Investigators said they would begin pulling wreckage from the scene Friday, beginning with the jet's engines.
American has hired a private firm to collect personal belongings scattered across the scene. Officials said about two-thirds of the belongings were not damaged.
Pilot of Flight 1420 was warned about dangerous wind shear
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