Investigation begins into 737 flight that overshot runway

DALLAS — The rain-slicked crash of American Airlines Flight 331 Tuesday night in Kingston, Jamaica, may well intensify calls for new policies on pilot fatigue.

The inquiry into the crash — in which all 148 passengers and six crew members walked out of a plane broken into three sections — has just begun, and conclusions remain months away.

But it eerily resembles earlier incidents that have spurred the nation’s air safety regulator to challenge the rules for how long pilots rest and how much they can fly each month.

And it could prompt a fresh look at Fort Worth, Texas-based American’s pilot procedures and cockpit culture as investigators hunt for clues to why the plane skidded off the runway and broke up just feet from the Caribbean Sea, aviation experts said today.

In June 1999, an American Airlines captain of an MD-82 aircraft landed the plane in Little Rock, Ark., during a thunderstorm. In the confusion, he and his co-pilot failed to set wing spoilers and braking systems that would have helped the plane slow down.

Instead it ran off the runway and split into pieces. The National Transportation Safety Board pointed to pilot fatigue as a factor in the decisions that led to the accident that killed 11.

“Little Rock-ian does come to mind,” said airline and pilot union consultant Robert Mann of Port Washington, N.Y.

Several elements — and perhaps fatigue — combined to create a situation Tuesday where the American jet slid off the 8,910-foot Kingston runway, which is about medium-length among airports.

The 737-800

The “stretched” version of the Boeing plane is so long that to prevent it from scraping its tail on landing it has the highest landing speed — 160 mph or so — of any American jet, according to Keith Rola, an American captain who flies them.

The plane had no empty seats, adding to its weight. It probably carried extra jet fuel, as required for international flights, making the aircraft even heavier and harder to stop.

“When you’re landing one in the rain, you have no depth perception on the runway,” Rola said, and that adds to the challenge. If the pilots had decided even seconds after touching down that they didn’t like what they were seeing, they could not have taken off again for another approach, he said. “You cannot call an audible at the line once you’ve touched down.”

The eight-year-old plane had undergone light maintenance in November but had no outstanding mechanical issues, FAA records show. Its right engine was shorn off as it crashed through a fence and into a berm at the end of the runway, its left wing was damaged, and the fuselage was cracked open in two places.

Weather conditions

Heavy rain was reported at Kingston, and turbulence was so severe on the flight from Miami that the pilot canceled in-flight service and had flight attendants remain seated.

Winds of up to 15 knots coming from the north-northwest probably gave the plane a tailwind, adding to its speed at landing and increasing the level of difficulty.

The asphalt runway at Norman Manley International Airport isn’t grooved as most are in the United States, meaning that water pools much more easily on it than runways at places such as Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. That could make hydroplaning — in which the plane skids on top of a sheet of water instead of making contact with the runway — substantially worse.

Hydroplaning may have affected the plane’s auto-braking system, which senses how fast the wheels are spinning and applies brake pressure to slow the plane down. Hydroplaning wheels don’t spin as fast as the airplane is actually moving, sending false signals to the plane’s computer.

Crew alertness

Flight 331’s pilot and co-pilot had been on duty nearly 12 hours, approaching the maximum allowed, according to union officials.

“You really have to look at how long these guys are on duty,” said Sam Mayer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents 9,000 American pilots.

On Dec. 13, fatigue may have played a role in a botched landing of an American jet in Charlotte, N.C., where pilots clipped one of the MD-80’s wing tips on the ground and the wheels briefly left the runway. No one was injured in the incident, which is under investigation.

Mayer added that American doesn’t pay pilots whose trips get interrupted and who can’t complete the flying they signed up for. The pilots of Flight 331 were on their first day of a multi-day sequence of trips that, had they diverted the plane to another city, would probably have jeopardized their ability to fly out the rest of the sequence. Not completing trips can cost pilots thousands of dollars in lost income, Mayer said.

“Our pilots shouldn’t have to sacrifice their principles to get paid,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to issue formal guidelines that change pilot rest rules, probably cutting the maximum time they can be on duty in a day or over several days. The push for more pilot-friendly rules comes as fatigue is likely to have factored in the February crash of a turboprop plane in Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50.

American said the jet captain had 22 years of experience and 2,695 hours flying 737s as a captain. The first officer had 10 total years of experience and 5,027 hours as a first officer on the plane, and neither pilot had worked that many hours in December, compared to the rest of the pilot group, spokesman Tim Wagner said.

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