Two senior pilots from Pan American World Airways testified today that the weather information available to the captain and crew of Flight 759 at New Orleans Moisant Airport July 9 gave them no reason to delay their takeoff.
The flight crashed seconds later in a residential subdivision and killed 154 people.
Capt. Hart A. Langer, the Pan Am pilot responsible for developing the company's manuals and flight procedures, testified at the National Transportation Safety Board's hearing into the accident that:
"No airline pilot, least of all Ken McCullers the captain of Flight 759 , would have taken off into a known hazardous weather condition. The first person on the scene of an accident, quite literally, is the pilot. ... It's clear that something dangerous was there and clear that the present system of providing information does not meet its task...."
The accident is widely assumed to have been caused by a severe shift in winds called wind shear, and wind-shear alerts were broadcast by the air traffic control tower and heard by the crew of Flight 759 before it took off.
But witness after witness has testified in three days of hearings that such alerts are only advisory. The New Orleans weather as observed at the airport at the time of the takeoff has been described as routine, with dark clouds building to the east -- the direction of the Pan Am takeoff.
Timothy Borson, a safety board investigator, asked Langer if the captain of Flight 759, "in departing, with the information he had, made a wise decision."
"Yes, sir," Langer said.
It is the strongest public defense Pan Am has made for its flight crew since the accident.
Capt. Don B. Lovern, the chief pilot for Pan Am's southern operations, laid the groundwork for the defense when he interpreted the recording of conversation in the cockpit immediately before the takeoff.
McCullers briefed his crew on the fact that the plane was heavy and reviewed procedures for aborting the takeoff or dealing with an engine failure. He also told the co-pilot to use extra engine power on the takeoff, and reviewed standard techniques for flying through a wind shear. That order immediately followed a transmission by the air traffic control tower that there was wind shear "in all quadrants."
Lovern complained to the board that wind shear alert broadcasts are too complex. He agreed with a suggestion of board member Patrick Bursley that an alert system using numerical values such as 1 to 10 might be more useful.