An air traffic controller repeatedly advised the crew of American Airlines Flight 1420 that the Little Rock airport was being buffeted by wind shear and thunderstorms with winds gusting more than 50 mph, but the crew never indicated any hesitancy in landing before the plane ran off the runway June 1, killing 11 of the 145 people aboard.
Air traffic radio tapes, released by the Federal Aviation Administration yesterday, also showed that airport rescue vehicles did not reach the burning McDonnell Douglas MD-80 for 13 minutes after the crash, partly because of a misunderstanding with the controller that first sent them to the wrong end of the runway.
The tapes do not include conversations between the two pilots during the approach. A transcript from the cockpit voice recorder will not be released until Jan. 26, when the National Transportation Safety Board opens hearings in Little Rock.
Flight 1420 originated in Dallas and was approaching Little Rock just before midnight, with a crew that had been on duty for 13 1/2 hours. Among the items the safety board said it will consider in its investigation is "flight crew decision-making and its relationship to fatigue."
When the crew of Flight 1420 first checked in with the Little Rock controller, about 17 minutes before the crash, the controller noted that there was "a thunderstorm just northwest of the airport moving, uh, through the area now." He said winds were from the west at 28 knots--or 32 mph--gusting to 51 mph.
"Yeah, we can see, uh, lightning and, uh, you want us to repeat the winds again?" said the co-pilot, who handled radio conversations while the captain flew the plane.
Four minutes later, the controller noted that the aircraft has better weather radar than the tower and asked the flight crew for weather information.
"Okay, we can, uh, see the airport from here," said the co-pilot. "We can barely make it out, but, uh, we should be able to make two two [the runway]. That storm is moving this way like your radar says it is, but a little farther off than you thought."
The controller then issued the first of several wind-shear alerts, based on readings from sensors around the airport showing winds moving in different directions at different speeds.
On another frequency, not heard by the pilots, in a conversation with the Memphis air traffic center, the Little Rock controller appeared almost incredulous that the American plane was still coming in, saying, "He's on a visual approach right now, but it's, uh, it's kind of rockin' and rollin' here."
About five minutes before touchdown, the crew radioed: "We know you're doing your best, but we're getting pretty close to this storm. We'll keep it tight if we have to." The controller gave the plane another vector away from the storm, although that necessitated a turn toward final approach closer to the runway than normal. The crew acknowledged the tight turn and said, "That's great with us."
For the last four minutes of the flight the controller kept up a constant flow of weather reports, including observations that there was "heavy rain on the airport," gusts up to 51 mph and deteriorating visibility, and he issued several wind-shear alerts.
At one point the controller reported that runway visibility was down to 1,600 feet, below American's minimums for landing unless the aircraft is already established on its final approach.
"American 1420, we're established inbound," the co-pilot radioed 12 seconds later.
The controller caught a glimpse of the plane rolling past and then lost it in the pouring rain.