Air Florida and the Air Line Pilots Association, reacting to the release of the cockpit tape transcript that raised questions about the crew's conduct in the crash of a Boeing 737 into the Potomac River three weeks ago, yesterday cautioned against a quick verdict on what made the plane go down.
Their statements followed the release Thursday of the transcript that strongly suggests that crew members knew ice or snow was on their plane's wings, but took off anyway. The Air Florida jet struck the 14th Street bridge and plunged into the water, killing 74 people aboard it and four on the bridge.
Richard Skully, Air Florida's vice president for operations, said the tape must be matched against other parts of the investigation, which is still under way. But he said the transcript indicated the pilot and copilot performed well. "They used the preflight check list in a professional manner," he said.
J.J. O'Donnell, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, called the transcript's release "premature." In a written statement he said: "In the past we have found that CVR cockpit voice recorder transcripts, taken out of context and in the absence of all other evidence, have produced misleading and erroneous impressions as to the actual causes of accidents."
O'Donnell's association does not represent Air Florida's pilots. But it is taking part in the investigation into the crash, which is being coordinated by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Pilot error as opposed to faulty equipment or procedures has already emerged as a major question in the investigation, though the crash's cause remains unknown. Wing ice, however, which could have reduced lift and affected control of the plane, has been singled out as a possible factor.
Ultimate resolution of the issue will affect the prestige or financial liability of professional pilots in general, Air Florida, the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing and other firms that serviced the plane or whose products were used in it.
The lawsuits that airline crashes invariably generate are already being filed and will specifically address the issue of who was at fault. Yesterday, Bert Hamilton of Gaithersburg, one of five people aboard the plane to survive the crash, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, alleging negligence by Air Florida, Boeing and three other firms. He is seeking $1.5 million in damages.
Contents of the cockpit tape, recovered from the Potomac by divers, will be closely examined by lawyers in these cases, as well as by federal safety investigators. But aviation specialists note that the transcript's meaning is subject to various interpretations, because many of the words are indistinct and were spoken in conjunction with gestures and nods.
Still, many who have read the transcript feel it challenges the image of cool, hard-working professionalism that pilots try to foster. According to the transcript, Larry Wheaton, the pilot, and Roger Alan Pettit, the copilot, joked repeatedly about ice and bad weather, but never turned around to go back for another de-icing treatment.
Pettit appeared to suggest that the Air Florida plane pull up close behind the engines of another jet to melt snow or ice on its wings, a move that aviation specialists say could be dangerous. It is not known if the Air Florida plane did so, though the transcript suggests it did.
Pilots interviewed yesterday said that light-hearted banter is common in airline cockpits and can aid safety. If rapport between pilot and copilot is good, they said, chances are better that they will work well together in the event of an emergency.
Wheaton, 34, had logged about 1,850 flight hours in 737s, a safety board spokesman said. Before joining Air Florida in 1978, he flew for Air Sunshine, a regional carrier in Florida.
Copilot Pettit, 31, hired directly from the U.S. Air Force, where he was an F15 fighter pilot, had flown 737s for about 990 hours. In the days immediately before the crash, according to operations chief Skully, the two men had flown together for 16 to 17 hours, though it is unclear if they had worked together before that.
Skully said the two were known in the airline as topnotch pilots. Pettit was the more talkative and outgoing of the two, he said, an observation born out by the cockpit tape.
Skully said the transcript showed the crew conducted a thorough check list before taking off. They followed the airline's flight manual correctly in leaving engine de-icing devices off, he said. Investigators have speculated that because the de-icing was off, probes in the engines froze and gave artificially high readings on thrust, leading the crew to throttle the engines too low.
Other pilots have said that Wheaton and Pettit had comparatively little experience flying in winter weather and may not have realized the danger they were in as heavy snow fell on the plane as it awaited permission to take off.
Plane after plane took off ahead of them without any problem. By the time Flight 90 lined up for takeoff at 4 p.m., aviators note,it was about two hours behind schedule andwas told to move quickly because another airplane was approaching for a landing.
During acceleration on the runway, the transcripts indicate the Air Florida crew detected problems. But the low visibility, the lack of "distance-remaining" signs on the sides of the runway and the slippery pavement may have made them reluctant to abort, out of fear of running off the end.
Aviation specialists interviewed yesterday stressed that it remains unclear whether Wheaton and Pettit saw ice on their wings. But if they did and took off anyway, they said, there was no excuse. Even "if it means a five-hour delay in departing, a prudent, safe captain will take that time and do whatever has to be done," said John Galipault, president of the Aviation Safety Institute.