Co-pilot of crashed jet describes descent as 'normal'
June 4, 1999
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (CNN) -- The only cockpit survivor of the American Airlines jetliner that ran off the runway, broke apart and burned after landing in a thunderstorm in Little Rock told federal investigators Friday that the flight and the descent into the airport seemed "normal."
Nine people were killed, including the pilot, Capt. Richard Buschmann, and 85 others on board the jet were injured when Flight 1420 slammed into a bank of runway lights at Little Rock National Airport late Tuesday.
About 100 investigators are working to determine whether severe weather, a mechanical malfunction or human error contributed to the accident.
A team of investigators that included experienced jet pilots interviewed First Officer Michael Origel for about two hours as he lay in a hospital bed recovering from a broken leg sustained in the crash.
But the interview with the co-pilot seemed to further cloud the mystery surrounding what happened Tuesday night.
Origel told the investigators the touchdown felt firm. But Origel thought he sensed the aircraft hydroplane down the runway because he didn't feel any of the decelerating forces that are normally felt when a plane begins to slow down.
Marks on the runway, however, indicate that all of the plane's wheels made contact, making hydroplaning unlikely, said George Black, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.
Black also noted that technicians who conducted friction tests on the runway declared it was the "best runway they have ever tested" from the standpoint of skid resistance.
Black said there was also conflicting wind data from various instruments, indicating a 60-to-70 degree difference in direction. He hopes that further investigation with timelines will explain the different readings.
Origel also told investigators that he thought the pilot moved the lever to activate the spoilers -- devices that kill the lift on the wings to give more braking action. That lever was on the pilot's side of the cockpit and after the crash it was in an abnormal position. Investigators said because the plane broke apart, the spoilers' cables may have repositioned the lever.
But the flight data recorder retrieved from the plane's wreckage indicated the spoilers did not deploy.
Investigators also had questions about why the thrust reversers went on and off seconds after the plane touched down. Thrust reversers deflect air forward to help decelerate the airplane.
The co-pilot said he observed Buschmann activating the thrust-reverse, go to heavy reverse, come out and then go back into heavy reverse.
Black said that may have meant the pilot was struggling to both slow the plane with the thrust reversers and steer the plane, because thrust reversers could reduce the effectiveness of the rudder, mounted on the aircraft's tail.
The last seconds on the flight data recorder showed that the left thrust reverser was deployed while the right one was not.
The question is whether the anomalies were due to mechanical problems or were the result of choices by the pilot.
Investigators plan to interview the co-pilot again in a few weeks when he has more fully recovered from the accident.
"Maybe his memory will be clearer later," Black told reporters.
Meanwhile, some of the crash survivors and relatives of the victims -- some carrying flowers -- went to the crash site Friday and viewed the crumpled plane.
The group, which arrived in chartered buses, was kept about 100 yards from the wreckage. As people left the buses, each was given a single flower before they walked up to a fence on a hill overlooking the wreckage. A makeshift memorial had been made of hay bales and flowers.
One woman with a neck brace was being aided as she walked; a man with a similar brace was in a wheelchair. Also in the group was a student who was traveling with a 25-member Baptist college choir that had entertained Kosovar refugees during a two-week tour in Europe.
It will be Saturday before investigators have a preliminary transcript from the cockpit voice recorder. The tape apparently has a lot of noise on it that has yet to be identified.
The plane landed during a ferocious thunderstorm with powerful wind gusts and dime-size hail. The control tower had issued two wind shear alerts to the crew.
Origel "indicated that he did not lose sight of the runway during the approach process," Black said, but that "the north end of the runway" was not visible during touchdown.
That conflicted with what was on the cockpit voice recorder.
"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 enough fuel to fly to alternate airports in Nashville or Dallas, Black said. Investigators were analyzing the conversation between the control tower and the crew before the plane crashed.
Co-pilot of Flight 1420 talks to investigators
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