Nov. 8, 2014 11:55 p.m. ET
A Southwest Airlines Co. jet crash-landed on a runway at New York City’s La Guardia Airport in July 2013 after the captain unexpectedly pulled back engine power while the co-pilot was still flying the aircraft, according to federal investigators.
Documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board at the end of October indicate the captain unilaterally put the engines essentially into idle at the wrong instant—causing the Boeing 737’s nose to drop sharply—without any warning and while the co-pilot’s hands were still on the throttles.
Only seconds after that, with the plane barely 50 feet above the strip, did the captain take the required step to verbalize she was taking over flying responsibilities by telling the co-pilot: “I got it.”
NTSB documents indicate the captain violated company and industry safety standards, which require pilots to work as a team, and in all cases, they must declare their intentions before taking over controls or changing any flight-control settings.
The captain, aged 49 and with more than 7,500 hours behind the controls of a 737, was terminated by the carrier about two months after the accident. Her co-pilot, a former fighter pilot and flight instructor for the Air Force who had started flying for Southwest the year before, was retrained and has returned to flying status.
The safety board also revealed that about three years earlier, the captain was ordered to undergo remedial company training for her leadership style in the cockpit. According to interviews released by the safety board, the move was prompted by repeated complaints from first officers about her alleged overbearing attitude in the cockpit. After the training, she returned to her regular flying schedule.
The accident seriously damaged the airplane and delayed traffic at the busy New York airport for hours. It led to friction among the NTSB, the carrier and the Federal Aviation Administration—primarily over the safety board’s use of Twitter to swiftly disseminate crash details that the public previously would have had to wait days to receive.
The material released by the safety board last month doesn’t officially determine the cause of the accident, and among other things, the final report is expected to examine Southwest’s training and pilot oversight programs.
A spokeswoman for the carrier declined to comment, citing the continuing investigation.
The co-pilot told investigators the captain suddenly pulled back thrust without a word and while his hands were still on the throttles—a move contrary to broadly accepted training and cockpit-safety rules.
He also told investigators the captain’s actions leading up to the accident —including setting the approach speed into the 737’s flight computer on her own—indicated “she was very proactive” and “wanted to spin dials.” Typically, the pilot flying asks the other to set such speeds in the computer.
The co-pilot and other Southwest pilots interviewed by investigators said the jet, carrying 150 people from Nashville and approaching a relatively short and wet runway in stormy weather, should have climbed away from the strip for another approach.
Hundreds of pages released by the safety board depict an approach that was normal until close to the end. But at roughly 1,000 feet altitude—when the jet should have been configured fully to land—the captain further extended the flaps, or movable panels at the rear of the wings. The crew forgot to extend them to the maximum earlier in the approach.
Below 500 feet, with the plane established on the correct glide path, the co-pilot recalled the captain seemed uncomfortable “and was sitting up in her chair and doing a little twisting and turning.”
At roughly 100 feet, the captain became concerned the aircraft was too high and retarded the throttles. The sudden reduction in thrust, combined with flaps extended further than normal, prompted the nose of the plane to quickly angle downward, according to pilots and other experts interviewed by the NTSB.
Instead of landing on the main wheels with the nose pointing slightly upward as required, the nose gear hit first.
The force of the impact, amounting to more than three times the plane’s weight, sheared off the nose wheel and the plane skidded on its belly for nearly 20 seconds. Nine people sustained minor injuries.
Write to Andy Pasztor at firstname.lastname@example.org
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