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It could have been pilot's error - expert

Published:Monday | January 4, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Livern Barrett, Staff Reporter

United States-based aviation expert Michael Slack said the decision by the pilot of American Airlines Flight 331 to land the aircraft in weather conditions it was not capable of handling might have contributed to the December 22 accident.

Responding to reports that the 737-800 aircraft was attempting to land in a tailwind of 14 knots, Slack pointed to a 2004 study which showed that the maximum tailwinds for take-offs and landings by this model plane was 10 knots in clear weather conditions. This number, he noted, was lower in bad weather.

On top of the heavy rains, officials at the Met Office and the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority (JCAA) confirmed yesterday that there was a tailwind of 14 knots in the vicinity of the runway at the time of the incident.

Pointing out that all pilots have this information, the Met Service official explained that data about the weather conditions at the airport is updated every hour and made available to the air traffic control tower and other aviation interests.

Common knowledge

"Every pilot ... every airline knows where to get that data (tailwinds) when they are planning a flight," the Met Service official said.

Flight 331 was on its way into Kingston from Miami when it overshot the runway at the Norman Manley International Airport, coming to a stop just metres from the sea on the others side of the Port Royal main road.

Speaking to The Gleaner from Texas, Slack said the accident was eerily similar to the crash of AA Flight 1420 in the US city of Little Rock, Arkansas, on June 1, 1999.

In the Arkansas incident, which left the pilot and 10 passengers dead, the AA plane overran the runway at the Little Rock National Airport, hit several objects, tore through a perimeter fence then crashed and burst into flames.

The US-based National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the accident and pointed to several errors by the pilot.

One error, according to the NTSB report posted on its website, was the pilot's decision to continue his approach to landing "when the company's (AA) maximum crosswind component was exceeded".

The report also highlighted "the flight crew's failure to discontinue the approach when severe thunderstorms and their associated hazards to flight operations had moved into the airport area".

Slack said arising from the NTSB findings, AA revised its policy and warned its pilots against attempting to land in adverse weather conditions.

Forgotten the lessons

"But Flight 331 tells us they have forgotten the lessons of Little Rock," said Slack, who won a multimillion-dollar award for one family from the Little Rock crash.

When contacted, AA spokesman Tim Wagner said he could not discuss the airline's policies because the investigation into the Flight 331 mishap was still ongoing.

"Because company policies and their application will be something that the authorities will examine, I cannot circumvent their investigations by discussing them publicly," Wagner said in response to questions from The Gleaner.

JCAA investigators are scheduled to meet the local and international media in Kingston today to provide an update on the investigations.