The co-pilot of a Southwest Airlines Co. plane that crash landed at New York’s LaGuardia Airport in July 2013 said the captain put her hand on his as he was controlling the throttles and reduced the plane’s power.
Only after that did the captain announce that she was taking control of the landing, which ended with the airplane skidding on its belly down the runway, according to accounts of the incident released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
“I got it,” the captain said several seconds after moving the throttles, according to an NTSB transcript of the cockpit conversation and the plane’s data recorder.
The plane then made an unusual nose-down landing instead of settling onto the main wheels beneath the wings, causing minor injuries to nine people, significantly damaging the plane and forcing LaGuardia Airport to shut down that day. The captain’s actions may have violated the airline’s safety rules, though the NTSB has yet to draw a definitive conclusion.
“We continue to cooperate with the NTSB and look forward to the final report,” Brandy King, a spokeswoman for Dallas- based Southwest Airlines, said Tuesday. She declined to comment further because the NTSB investigation remains open.
The captain was fired after the accident, Southwest said Oct. 2, 2013. A spokeswoman for the airline, Linda Rutherford, declined at the time to specify why the airline took that action. The firing was upheld after an appeal, King said Wednesday. The co-pilot was ordered to take additional training.
The documents released include a transcript from the cockpit recorder, photos of damage to the airplane and runway as well as statements from airport ground controllers.
Under Southwest’s flight rules, the pilots should have aborted their landing at LaGuardia because they hadn’t properly set the movable panels on the wings known as flaps as they descended below 1,000 feet (305 meters) altitude, according to the documents.
A split second before hitting the runway, the captain inhaled and uttered an unspecified expletive, according to the NTSB’s transcript.
The plane skidded down the runway for about 18 seconds. “Oh my god,” the captain said.
The incident, in which the plane wasn’t properly set up and stabilized for landing, falls into a category of accidents that has received increased attention from safety advocates, including the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation.
The New York crash, along with the 2013 crash of an Asiana Airlines Inc. plane in San Francisco that killed three people, may have been prevented if pilots had opted to abort their landings when it became clear that everything wasn’t in order, according to NTSB documents.
Crashes that occur during approach or touchdown are the world’s leading category of aviation mishaps and deaths, according to data compiled by Chicago-based manufacturer Boeing Co. The biggest risk factor for such accidents is failing to approach a runway at the proper speed, altitude and heading, known as an unstabilized approach.
The Southwest plane, a Boeing 737-700, was being flown by the co-pilot, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who was 44 at the time of the accident, according to the NTSB. He had about 5,200 flight hours.
The captain, who was 49 and had more than 12,000 hours, told investigators she believed the plane was too high for the landing and she took over because the co-pilot wasn’t reacting to her guidance.
“She said she believed that if she did not act, the airplane would have continued to float past the touchdown zone,” the NTSB wrote in a report summarizing the pilot actions.
The co-pilot told investigators the captain put her hand on his hand as he was controlling the throttles and reduced the power shortly before reaching the runway.
To prevent confusion during a switch in cockpit control, Southwest and other airlines require pilots to announce their intent to alter the throttles or any flight system before doing so.
The reduction in power combined with a failure to keep the nose tilted slightly upward led the plane to touch down on the front landing gear, according to an analysis by Boeing released by NTSB. It hit with more than three times the force of gravity, according to the Boeing report.
From late 2009 through early 2010, “a few” other pilots had complained to Southwest management about the captain, according to another report released by NTSB. One said she had a “harsh approach.” Another said she didn’t do a good job of soliciting input from co-pilots.
The captain received additional training in leadership and cockpit communication in February 2010 and the airline received no additional complaints afterward, according to the NTSB.
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