Copilot Rudolph Price saw lightning "right ahead of us" as Delta Flight 191 descended toward Runway 17 Left at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport on Aug. 2, but it was another 86 seconds and several hundred feet before the crew attempted, too late, to abort the landing.
The jetliner hit the ground, bounced or flew into a car on a freeway, then began to break up when it struck the ground again. A total of 135 people were killed. Twenty-nine people on the plane survived.
The transcript of crew conversations and other documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board yesterday paint a classic portrait of a weather-related crash. A phenomenon known as microburst wind shear -- suddenly shifting wind speeds and directions -- clearly played a role in the crash, although the board has not made a final ruling.
If the pilots flying down the electronic beam toward the landing had known everything that everyone else knew, or if they had reacted differently to what they did know, the worst U.S. accident in three years might not have happened.
The safety board's documents show that:
*About 2 1/2 minutes before the accident, the crew of another Delta plane looked toward the end of the runway that Flight 191 was approaching. According to the cockpit recording from that flight, the captain asked, "Is that a waterspout out there on the end?" The copilot replied: "I don't know, sure looks like it, doesn't it? Looks like a tornado or something. I've never seen anything like it."
There were no radio transmissions from that plane's crew to the tower, nor are any required.
*The pilot of a business jet that preceded the Delta flight to the same runway was able to land after encountering a sudden loss of airspeed and altitude, a typical sign of microburst wind shear.
According to the safety board reports, the pilot did not immediately radio a warning because, he explained, he "had his hands full" and was concentrating on getting off the runway.
*Two National Weather Service meteorologists, who might have been in a position to interpret radar data and warn about the potentially deadly nature of the small thunderstorm that moved across the approach end of the runway, were taking meal breaks at the time of the crash.
*Weather service radar 125 miles away in Longview, Tex., part of the network serving the airport, was out of operation because it had been struck by lightning 2 1/2 hours before the crash.
*Cumulo-nimbus clouds, which often become thunderstorms, formed over the approach to the runway and were sighted by a weather service observer at the airport 14 minutes before the crash.
He told the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control tower, but the information was not relayed to pilots. FAA officials have told investigators that the report was not of the severity that requires retransmission.
*About one minute before the crash, the airport weather observer called the weather service's Fort Worth forecast office to advise of a thunderstorm at the airport but did not call the tower or the weather service desk at the regional air traffic center.
The safety board's documents say that "the first official weather observation disseminated to the tower which described conditions such as thunderstorm, lightning and rain showers was not received" until 6:07 pm. CDT, five minutes after the thunderstorm began and one minute after the crash.
The conversations in the cockpit involving Price, who was flying, Capt. Edward Michael Connors, and Second Officer Nick N. Nassick show a clear understanding of the fact that storms were in the area. Twice on the flight from Fort Lauderdale the crew requested different routes to avoid weather.
No unusual concern is indicated in the transcript until the plane was in deep trouble. Sources have speculated that the storm may have looked fairly benign from the cockpit until it was too late to recover.
One minute after Price mentioned the lightning "right ahead of us," Connors ordered, "Watch your speed," possibly a warning that the plane was losing airspeed, which happens in wind shears.
Two seconds later, Connors said, "You're going to lose it all of a sudden; there it is."
Four seconds later, he commanded, "Push it up; push it way up," apparently a reference to the throttles. Going to full power is part of the technique to recover from a wind shear. "Way up," Connors said again, then Nassick repeated it and Connors said it once more.
Apparently the throttles were being advanced carefully, not thrust immedately to the wall, the technique that some airlines teach as best for recovering from a wind shear.
Fifteen seconds later the ground-proximity warning system sounded its strident alarm, followed by the command: "Pull up!" The alarm continued to the end of the tape.