American Airlines Flight 1420, which crashed on the stormy night of June 1, was "way off" course as it approached the runway, but the senior captain either ignored or didn't hear the first officer's timid suggestion that he "go around" and try the landing again, according to testimony to the National Transportation Safety Board today.
Surviving first officer Michael H. Origel testified for more than two hours about his role in the crash, which killed 11 of the 145 people on board, including captain Richard Buschmann, when the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 slid down the wet runway and off the end.
A transcript of the plane's cockpit voice recorder, plus reams of other factual data released today, indicated that the captain had trouble seeing the runway and was far to the right of the runway center line on final approach.
Technical information also showed that the plane was wobbling up and down at the end so much that the ground-proximity warning said in an automated voice, "Sink rate," indicating a too-rapid descent. Passengers at that point underwent up and down forces up to 1.7 times the force of gravity.
The cockpit voice recorder, combined with Origel's testimony, showed that the crew was well aware of thunderstorms northwest and southeast of them as they lifted off from the Dallas-Forth Worth airport for the short hop to Little Rock. The captain at one point called the passengers' attention to the storms, telling them on the speaker system that there was "quite a light show off the left-hand side of the aircraft."
Origel repeatedly defended the actions of the captain, saying he was a good pilot and that he felt that Buschmann was gaining control of the plane when it "ran out of runway." Origel also said that the two believed they had a clear path into the airport despite being bracketed by thunderstorms.
The transcript from the cockpit voice recorder does not indicate that Origel suggested to the senior pilot that they abort the landing, but Origel said he did so at one point where the transcript shows an unintelligible piece of conversation. This could indicate that he did not say it loudly enough or that other sounds intervened.
In an interview transcript from an earlier discussion with investigators, Origel said: "I have got to admit I didn't do it in a very strong voice. I remember saying go around." At another point in this transcribed interview, which was not repeated in oral testimony today, Origel said Buschmann was "a chief pilot and check airman" and "I'm a new guy."
Buschmann had long experience with American and as part of his job had some say over Origel's employment. Origel had been with American less than a year at the time of the crash. One of the issues that may be discussed at the hearings is the tendency of junior pilots sometimes not to challenge more senior pilots.
An animation of the landing, played before a packed audience of family members and spectators, showed that the captain wrestled the plane to the runway at an angle, skidded to the right, then went off the runway to the left and then off the end.
"Spoilers," flat panels on top of the wing that stick up into the airstream to help keep weight on the tires during braking, did not deploy. This meant that the plane lost an estimated 70 percent of its braking power on the wet runway.
Origel testified that he thought the captain "armed" the spoilers to deploy automatically on landing, but he could not be certain. Under American's rules, it would have been Origel's duty to arm the spoilers, but in practice captains often do so because the lever is on the captain's side.
"One of the things that really does bother me about this flight [is] if I missed that," Origel said.
The material released today also raised the likelihood that the crew failed to follow several American Airlines procedures, applying too much power to the plane's thrust reversers and setting up aerodynamic forces that swirled exhaust gases around the rudder and rendered it ineffective for a time in controlling the plane's sideway skids. The MD-80's thrust reverser, which redirects exhaust to help in braking, is on the tail of the plane near the rudder.
In his public testimony, Origel avoided suggesting that he or the captain might have done anything wrong, even though it appears they did not complete a pre-landing checklist that might have indicated that the spoilers had not been armed.
At one point, however, Origel seemed to indicate that things might have been going wrong toward the end. "I was behind the aircraft at that point, but catching up," he said of the final approach below 1,000 feet.
Origel testified that they could see the lights of Little Rock almost from the moment they climbed out of Dallas-Fort Worth, and his flight dispatcher sent a message saying it appeared the plane had a "bowling alley" approach to Little Rock with severe weather on either side but not into the Little Rock airport.
CAPTION: Todd Gray, whose mother died in the crash of American Airlines Flight 1420, puts his head in his hands during the NTSB hearing in Little Rock yesterday.