The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, agreeing that flight crew negligence caused a 1974 Washington area airliner crash that killed 92 persons, upheld today the denial of damages to families of the plane's pilot and copilot.
A unanimous three judge panel held that U.S. District Court Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. of Alexandria was "clearly correct" in his 1977 ruling that the crew of the Trans World Airlines jet rather than federal air controllers were to blame for the disaster. The plane crashed into the side of a Blue Ridge mountain on its landing descent to Dulles International Airport Dec. 1, 1974.
The panel's brief opinion cited evidence taken from a cockpit voice recorder that the pilots failed to respond effectively to altitude warnings on a flight chart and to three automatic alarms that sounded in the cockpit in the minutes before the crash.
The appeals court adopted Bryan's conclusion "that the last clear chance to avoid this accident was had by the crew, not the controller. If the crew had only heeded one of the many warnings available to them and which they should have heeded, right up to the" final "alert warning, the crash could have been avoided." Bryan's decision in a nonjury trial was the first determination by a judge of responsibility for the crash and came after 49 other lawsuits had been settled or decided by juries.
In some of these cases, the Federal Aviation Administration tacitly took partial responsibility for the crash by paying approximately 30 per cent of settlements. TWA paid the rest.
In one of seven jura awards, which totaled more than $1 million, the damages were paid to relatives of the flight engineer in the crew that Bryan and the appeals court found negligent.
The case decided today was filed by Marlene Brock, wodow of pilot Richard Brock, and Donna Kresheck, widow of copilot Leonard Kresheck. They sought damages for themselves and their seven children.
The plane that Brock and Kresheck pilot, TWA flight 514, crashed in bad weather at 11:09 a.m. on the western slope of Mount Weather 17 miles northwest of Dulles Airport.
The plane hit at an altitude of 1,669 feet, just below the top of the ridge line. It sheared off tree tops, struck a rocky outcorp, broke up and caught fire. Charred bodies and parts of bodies were scattered over an area about the size of two football fields.
The appeal court opinion said it was clear from the flight recorder that both pilots knew information on a chart they consulted that they were not supposed to fly under 1,800 feet during their initial approach. They also knew, the opinion said, that altitudes of less than 3,400 feet in the area "might be hazardous."
During the two-minute period before the crash, the court noted, the pilots heard three separate cockpit alarms sound warnings of dangerously low altitude. Their conversations showed they recognized the need to increase engine power, but failed to reach a higher altitude.
The appeals court concluded that the pilots "did not respond as quickly as they should have responded . . . " It also upheld Judge Bryan's conclusion that "there was no lack of ordinary care or violation of any duty owed the aircraft on the part of the air traffic controller" at Dulles.
The controller first observed the low altitude of the plane "at approximately the time of the impact, too late to have done anything to avert the crash," the court said.