Wednesday, June 8, 2005

American 1420: A Federal Jury v. the NTSB

"NTSB" is a familiar abbreviation for the National Transportation Safety Board, the governmental entity tasked with investigation of all major aviation accidents in this Country. But, given the manner in which it investigates accidents (inviting participation from manufacturers and other litigation interested parties), it frequently fails to get all the facts and interpret them accurately.

The investigation by the NTSB after the June 1, 1999 crash of American Airlines Flight 1420 at Little Rock, Arkansas is the best recent example. As usual, the NTSB blamed the pilot, this time for landing in a level 6 thunderstorm and failing to arm or deploy the spoilers (devices on the wing that pop up after landing to spoil the lift to assist in stopping) while citing a multitude of crew errors, including failure to recite the approach briefing and pre-landing checklist to name just a few.

As it turns out, the NTSB was wrong about nearly everything. The crew completed every item of the required approach briefing and pre-landing check list, the spoilers were, in fact, armed but did not deploy, and the sole cause of the deaths and injuries were towering steel approach light structures illegally placed by the Little Rock National Airport in what should have been the Runway Safety Area - a supposedly safe place 1000’ long by 500’ wide and reserved for aircraft that leave the runway for any reason.

No less than six times in the preceding six months, and as late as 10 days before the accident, the aircraft’s spoilers were squawked by flight crews as showing warning signs of imminent failure, yet no corrective action was ever taken. Despite these unresolved and uncorrected maintenance deficiencies, the NTSB criticized the flight crew for not arming the spoilers, even though electrical anomalies were found after the crash and the spoiler handle was discovered in the deployed position. At least six times before the crash, crews experienced asymmetric spool up times in the aircraft’s engines, sometimes by as much as 15 seconds, with no correction, and yet the NTSB accused the crew of improperly using asymmetric reverse thrust on the night of the accident. Frequent reports of binding of the reverse thrust actuators were likewise ignored by maintenance crews, yet the NTSB accused the flight crew of exceeding EPR (engine pressure ratio) limits when applying reverse thrust. With several reported instances of unresolved brake anomalies, the flight crew was even faulted for improper application of the brakes.

The crew was further vilified for flying into adverse weather, a level 6 thunderstorm, yet the Flight Data Recorder revealed virtually no turbulence, proving there was no such encounter. The crew was faulted for exceeding crosswind landing limits and ignoring lowering visibility when the good in-flight visibility confirmed that the crew had been given Runway Visual Range information from the wrong runway and the actual crosswinds were light.

Who came out unscathed from the NTSB investigation? The Little Rock National Airport and the FAA.
The FAA originally wanted no part of a non-standard Runway Safety Area and refused Little Rock National Airport’s repeated requests for a Medium Intensity Approach Light System. The FAA’s rationale made perfect sense. First, the lights would not reduce precision landing minimums for the runway and, therefore, provided no operational benefit. Second, siting problems meant that the Runway Safety Area dimensions would have to be dangerously reduced and non-frangible support structures would no doubt be required.
The Airport, with the application of "political pressure," forced the FAA to reverse itself, reduced the Runway Safety Area from 1000’ to a mere 453’, and then, just beyond this non-standard Runway Safety Area, erected a three-story steel catwalk with 16" diameter steel poles that would, and did, shred the MD-82 that was American 1420, killing Captain Richard Buschmann and ten of his passengers.

After the accident, wanting to head for the hills, the airport management backdated transfer documents so it would appear that the FAA owned the approach light system and catwalk at the time of the accident, instead of the Airport.

An Arkansas federal jury made short shrift of excuses by the Little Rock National Airport and found in favor of the Buschmann family in a recent trial, the only liability trial following this crash. Their multi-million dollar verdict found the Airport liable for the death of Captain Buschmann, effectively exonerating him of any responsibility for the accident but, more importantly, exposing the NTSB’s shockingly inept investigation.

The trial team consisted of Arthur Alan Wolk, Alan D. Mattioni, and Cheryl DeLisle of the Wolk Law Firm, and Mitch Llewellyn of Fort Smith, Arkansas.

June 8th, 2005