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American Airlines 1420 was one of the regular flights, headed from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (Dallas, Texas) to the Little Rock National Airport (Little Rock, Arkansas) on 1 July 1999. Because of the thunderstorm and heavy rain on the way, the pilot did not manage to land the plane safely, and it crashed after the overrunning the end of the runway.
There were 10 fatalities among the passengers, and the captain died; the first officer, 4 flight attendants, and 105 passengers were injured, and 40 of those injuries were serious (National Transportation Safety Board 1).
Although many people criticized the flight crew for how they were managing the situation, not only their poor decision-making abilities and fatigue became the cause of the catastrophe – miscommunications and too slow responses of those who were involved in the emergency management contributed to the plane’s fate as well.
The Pressure of Working for American Airlines
Despite reliable aircraft and extensive training, modern airlines put a lot of pressure on the flight crews. Driven by a desire to be competitive and demanded, large carriers establish high standards for the employees to follow. One of the strictest requirements is to be on time. It is not surprising that it can bring a lot of stress and affect the way in which people make their decisions.
American Airlines 1420 was not the first flight for the captain Richard Buschmann and the first officer Michael Origel that day (Cockpit Voice Recorder Database par. 2). The “flight sequence” started at 11:43 with the flight connecting Chicago and Salt Lake City and continued with another one, headed for Dallas (Federal Aviation Administration par. 1).
According to the schedule, American Airlines 1420 was supposed to take off at 20:28 and arrive in Little Rock at 21:14. However, when the captain and the first officer were ready to leave, it turned out that the flight was delayed because of adverse weather conditions. This delay put a pressure on the pilots even before the plane took off.
They tried to keep the flight on schedule, because they were afraid to exceed the American Airlines crew duty time limitation (Federal Aviation Administration par. 1). To avoid the delay, the airplane for the flight was changed, and American 1420 departed at 22:40, still more than two hours later than scheduled. That was the first mistake of the flight crew.
A Human Factor – Mistakes of the Flight Crew
While flying to Little Rock, the captain and the first officer received several warnings about a storm on the way. However, they did not consider the option of delaying the landing in view of the weather. Instead of this, they accelerated to “beat the storms to Little Rock, if possible” (Harter par. 37). The same was suggested to them by the dispatcher who they were talking to.
Although he warned them about the storm, which was close to Little Rock, he also said that there was the “bowling alley of clear air”, and they should try to make it (“Racing the Storm” par. 4). Even later, when the flight crew experienced the effects of adverse weather conditions on their own skin (frequent turbulence and lightning strikes), they did not want to delay the landing and only became more confident in their decision to expedite the approach.
When the flight was at the final approach, the weather got worse, the visibility decreased, and the “bowling alley” actually closed, neither the pilots nor a dispatcher they were talking to changed their mind (“Racing the Storm” par. 7). Due to the pilots’ desire to land as soon as possible, they made a lot of mistakes that night. For example, they did not arm the auto braking system and the automatic ground spoiler, which were crucial for a plane to be able to stop on a wet runway, especially if there were strong wind gusts in addition.
After the aircraft had touched the ground, the first officer claimed, “We’re down. We’re sliding” (Cockpit Voice Recorder Database par. 7). However, at the very next moment, both pilots realized that the spoilers did not work, and there were “almost no braking at all” (Cockpit Voice Recorder Database par. 7). Then, the captain went too far with reverse thrust, and the control of the plane was entirely lost. At high speed, the aircraft overran the end of the runway, crashed into the landing lights for another runway and finally stopped on the riverbank.
The Role of Fatigue in the Accident
As the report of the catastrophe showed, both of the pilots were feeling rather tired. The first officer said that it was “a long day” but he did not feel tired at all (National Transportation Safety Board 144). Still, “the flight crew’s normal schedule were consistent with the development of fatigue” because of strain at work, sleep losses and so on (National Transportation Safety Board 144). At the time when the accident occurred, both pilots were awake for more than 16 hours, which was more than a standard working day.
Additionally, the accident happened at the time when they would have been asleep in other circumstances. As the researchers state, people who feel fatigued are usually fixated on the desired outcome, which hinders the critical thinking (National Transportation Safety Board 144). And the truth is that is exactly what happened firstly at the airport in Dallas and then continued in the air.
Troubles with Communication and People’s Responses
Although Buschmann and Origel did make the mistakes, which contributed to the deplorable fate of the aircraft, not all the mistakes were on their conscience. Troubles with communication became one of the crucial reasons for this plane to crash since they allowed the landing, which should have been delayed.
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There were many chances for the flight crew to find out that they were going to land during the severe thunderstorm and heavy rain. However, the fate decreed otherwise. That night, there were more than nine hundred cloud-to-ground strikes of the lightning in the period between 11:36 and 11:51 (Harter par. 15). And Bill Trott, the dispatcher of American Airlines who had a connection to the pilots of the flight 1420, would have known that if only he updated the information and clicked the lightning icon on his computer screen.
Later, he said that he was not aware of the lightning on the field at Little Rock at all. Carol Burgess and Claude Johnson, who were observing the weather conditions at the airport, saw the lightning, and the information about it was presented in the report to the National Weather Service. In that report, Burgess mentioned the wind changes, declines of visibility, the thunderstorm, and even the lightning strikes.
Nevertheless, Bill Trott did not think that it was necessary to transfer that information to the pilots because the report did not mention any rain. At 11:24, the rain started but is was not enough to make another report, so Trott did not know about it. The pilots, on the contrary, knew about the rain but were not aware of a severe thunderstorm, so the plane flew on.
If only one of them knew about both of those weather conditions, the future catastrophe could have been prevented since it was simply prohibited to land a plane during the rain and the thunderstorm (Harter par. 27). Soon after, Claude Johnson had another report, which told about the rain and sudden decline of visibility from seven to one mile (Harter par. 28).
However, at that very moment his equipment was resetting (a planned task that should be done every hour), and for almost six minutes the communications failed, which is why it was impossible to send the report. When the resetting was over, and the information was transmitted at 11:53, the plane had already crashed (Harter par. 29).
According to the article entitled “Lessons In The Crash Of Flight 1420”, this aircraft put an end to almost an 18-month period when the US commercial airlines had flown without any fatal incidents (par. 2). The primary conclusion that can be made from the aspects discussed in the paper is that the catastrophe of the flight 1420 could have been prevented. But it was not. And the major reasons, which contributed to its fate, were a human factor, wrong and too slow people’s responses, and miscommunications.
Cockpit Voice Recorder Database., 1 June 1999 – American 1420. Web.
Federal Aviation Administration., Accident Overview. Web.
Harter, Andrea 2001, Tangle of errors, misjudgment behind crash of Flight 1420. Web.
National Transportation Safety Board 2001, Runway Overrun During Landing, American Airlines Flight 1420, McDonnell Douglas MD-82, N215AA, Little Rock, Arkansas, June 1, 1999. Web.
Racing the Storm: The 1999 Crash of American 1420 2012. Web.