The pilot of American Eagle Flight 3379, which crashed Dec. 13 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and killed 15 people, was forced to resign from another airline because a supervisor feared that he "may freeze up or get tunnel vision in an emergency situation," according to data released yesterday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Records show that in 1990, Capt. Michael Patrick Hillis was allowed to resign rather than be fired from Comair, the Delta Connection at Cincinnati, because of poor piloting skills. He was hired Jan. 7, 1991, by American Eagle at Nashville and selected for promotion to captain a year later, but records show that some copilots objected to flying with him because he was gaining a reputation as an unsafe pilot.
On Oct. 6, 1992, Hillis failed a Federal Aviation Administration check ride in an aircraft simulator because he failed to complete or properly execute numerous required maneuvers. A week later, after more training, he passed.
Five passengers were the only survivors of Flight 3379. Although the safety board will not issue a final report on the crash for months, it is clear from raw data that investigators will look carefully at Hillis's flying skills as well as why he was allowed to continue to fly and was promoted despite numerous negative reports.
The data compiled by NTSB investigators indicate that Hillis became distracted by a false warning of an engine problem on Flight 3379, and allowed the airspeed to drop too low as the Jetstream 3201 approached the North Carolina airport in rain and fog.
The cockpit voice recorder, with the last 30 minutes of cockpit conversation, shows that Hillis, 29, and First Officer Matthew Ian Sailor, 26, had an uneventful trip from nearby Greensboro, N.C., until shortly after 6:30 p.m. -- less than a minute before the crash -- as they made a final approach to the airport.
"Why's that ignition light on?" said Hillis. "We just had a flame-out?"
A flame-out is a loss of power, and the ignition light is supposed to warn the crew that the engine has quit.
"I'm not sure what's going on with it," said Sailor.
"We had a flame-out," said Hillis.
For several seconds, the two discussed which engine might be out, concluding that it was the left one.
However, safety board investigators and technicians determined that both engines were operating properly at the time. Their conclusion was based on an analysis of engine sounds on the cockpit voice recorder as well as evidence that both engines were near full power at the time of impact.
As Hillis and Sailor drifted through a dark, foggy sky, discussing whether to continue the approach or "go around," they apparently leveled off but did not apply more engine power, and their airspeed began to drop.
There is no indication on the voice recorder that either pilot noticed instruments showing a deteriorating airspeed until a cacaphony of stall warning horns blared.
"Let's go. Missed approach," Hillis said.
"All right," said Sailor.
"Set max power," said Hillis. But the stall warning continued.
"Lower the nose, lower the nose, lower the nose," said Sailor, urging a maneuver that would gain air speed.
At the end, Sailor apparently decided they had thought the problem was in the wrong engine.
"It's the wrong, wrong foot, wrong engine," he said.
After that, until the sound of impact 10 seconds later, there is only the sound of "heavy breathing" and stall warnings, and at one point Sailor said, "Here."
Safety board investigators attempted to recreate the accident sequence in simulators at the American Eagle training center at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, and determined that "unless rudder application was coordinated well with power application, it was very difficult to control the airplane."
Marty Heires, a spokesman for American Eagle, said the airline had asked Comair about Hillis's employment history, but was rebuffed. "Most employers will not give out information about job history," Heires said. In some states, ex-employees can sue those who do, he said.
Heires also pointed out that Hillis did pass all tests, and said that any pilot "is going to have to pass the training or he's not going to fly."
One of the pilots who checked out Hillis's skills at Comair, and who eventually recommended he be fired, said Hillis seemed under tremendous pressure from his father, a flight engineer with another airline, to succeed as a pilot.
"Mike had below-average piloting skills that required my constant attention, especially in the terminal area," the Comair pilot said. "The evaluation reflects that Mike was a concern to me because of his timeliness in performing tasks. Mike was frequently behind the airplane and often lost situational awareness. While Mike and I never experienced any emergencies together, I was somewhat concerned that Mike may freeze up or get tunnel vision in an emergency situation."
Art Saboski, American Eagle's base manager at Raleigh-Durham, told investigators that one first officer refused to fly with Hillis because "I've heard things" about his safety record.
Hillis a few days later called Saboski at home, saying "he was concerned that his reputation was being tarnished." Saboski offered him further training, which he accepted.
A few days later, another captain approached Saboski, saying he was speaking for several first officers who wanted him to talk to Saboski "regarding a captain they felt was unsafe. The captain, with some reluctance, admitted that it was Captain Hillis."