A USAir Boeing 727 flew through electric transmission lines while approaching Kansas City last year, severing four of the high-tension cables and damaging the plane, the National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday. The board attributed the incident to a series of blunders by crew and controllers.
The probable cause was the flight crew's failure to adequately prepare and execute an approach to Kansas City International Airport, the board said. The crew, landing in poor weather, descended to within a few feet of the ground several thousand feet short of the runway.
The board said air traffic controllers contributed to the incident by providing "inadequate and deficient services." A Federal Aviation Administration inspector riding in the cockpit, although not listed as contributing to the incident, "did not inform the crew members of the errors they were committing," the board said.
The incident went largely unnoticed at the time, partly because no one was hurt and the crew apparently did not know how close it had come to a crash until later. But the board, as it sometimes does, chose to make an example of the incident to call for greater quality control in the air traffic control system and better airline crew training.
USAir Flight 105 from Pittsburgh to Wichita with 65 aboard was approaching an intermediate stop in Kansas City on Sept. 8, 1989, in poor weather when controllers ordered a last-minute switch of runways.
With poor visibility, the crew members reported later that they saw a bright flash shortly before a controller radioed, "I can't tell for sure, but it appears we have lost the lighting on the south side of the airport."
The crew then executed a missed-approach procedure and flew to an alternate airport at Salina, Kan., apparently unaware of what had happened. Investigators determined that they had sliced through the electric lines at a point 7,000 feet east of the runway, only 75 feet above the ground. No passengers or crew members were injured, but the plane sustained minor damage.
An investigation later revealed a series of mistakes, the board said, ranging from a controller's failure to inform the crew of the weather to the crew's failure to maintain proper altitudes and follow proper procedures.
Among other things, the crew reported seeing the lights of the runway, but the board said they likely saw the lights of a parking lot. Capt. William Sorbie, a representative of the Air Line Pilots Association, said the crew insists it saw runway lights, and the board's "assumption" is "in error."
The board said controllers could see that the plane was not performing a proper approach, but failed to line up the plane properly with the runway "and committed other errors in handling the flight."
At the time, USAir did not train its pilots, the board said, to execute a missed approach when they were having trouble lining up for an instrument approach.
Some safety board members expressed annoyance with the attitudes of those involved in the incident, both at the time and in the later investigation. Board member John Lauber said the air traffic controllers in particular exhibited a "not-my-job" attitude. The board staff said the controllers were uncooperative and insisted they had made no mistakes.
Board member Jim Burnett said the controllers were likely coached by FAA officials, and "they may put their worst foot forward under the leadership of their commanders."
USAir spokesman David Shipley said the board's probable-cause statement was "inadequate" because it did not take into account a sudden change in weather and did not note that the crew had been given insufficient time to prepare for an approach after a last-minute change of runways.