The Curious and Frightening Case of American Flight 300’s Near Accident

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I find incident/accident investigations fascinating in general, but I rarely if ever cover them here. That being said, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) just put out its final report on American flight 300’s near accident in 2019 (h/t to Ross Feinstein), and this one is worth a discussion.

On the evening of April 19, 2019, American flight 300 pushed back at New York/JFK for a flight to Los Angeles. Like all flights in that market at the time, this one was operated by an Airbus A321T in the super-high premium configuration — 10 in First Class, 20 in Business, and 72 in Coach.

The airplane taxied out to runway 31L to depart toward the northwest. Before it even got in the air, the airplane started veering left. Once airborne, the bank angle grew, turning over so hard that the wingtip struck the ground, dragging along and taking out a sign. Soon after, the airplane leveled out and everything seemed fine. The pilots didn’t know the extent of the damage, but out of precaution — or actually, out of concern for political suffering — they decided to turn back around and land at JFK without incident.

Photo via NTSB

It’s a good thing they did turn around, because the damage was extraordinary. From the middle of the left wing, the impact had permanently pushed the wing up, leaving the left wingtip 6 inches higher than the right. The damage was unrepairable within reason, and the airplane was scrapped. But what the heck happened?

There were murmurs that it could have been some sort of malfunction. Considering how many A320 family aircraft are flying, a malfunction that tried to crash the airplane on takeoff would be of grave concern, but the investigation got very quite for a long time. Now we know what happened, and it wasn’t the airplane’s fault.

Reconstructing What Happened

By all accounts, it was a pretty normal night to fly. The weather was clear with just a high, scattered cloud layer at 25,000 feet and a temperature of 50 degrees. The Captain was 58 years old and was approaching 20,000 hours of total flight time, 3,000 on the A320 family. The First Officer was also 58 years old and had 10,000 hours of total flight time with nearly 2,000 hours on the A320 family. They had both flown together before and reported having a good working relationship in the cockpit.

They taxied out to the end of runway 31L and prepared for departure. If there was anything notable about the evening, it was the crosswind coming from the north at 14 to 17 knots. This is pretty routine at less than half the crosswind allowed for departure under American’s rules, so it’s barely worth noting… except for what happened next.

The airplane began accelerating, and this is when it gets weird. The Captain had been stepping on the left rudder pedal to counter the crosswind. This is how you keep the airplane straight on the runway while it’s gaining speed, and that was textbook. But then, he stepped on it hard.

When the airplane reached rotation speed of 156 kts, it was still on the ground when the Captain inexplicably pushed the rudder pedal to the metal. The airplane got in the air, but the hard rudder command tilted the left wing at one point to 37 degrees. So, think of it something like this.

They were barely airborne, so the wing actually dug into the concrete on the side of the runway. In fact, the scrape in the concrete went for 323 feet until the end of the pavement, taking out a runway sign along the way which was partially embedded in the wing.

The Captain did let go of the rudder pedal, the airplane straightened out, and they climbed to 20,000 feet. This is a true testament to the aircraft’s construction, because despite the bent wing and gouge in the front, it was flying perfectly fine as far as the pilots were concerned. It was good enough that they even considered continuing to LA. It’s a good thing that they didn’t. They circled around, didn’t even have to declare an emergency, and landed.

How Did This Happen?

This is where I get very, very confused. A read through the transcript on the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) does not clear things up at all.

The First Officer was pretty shaken up by this, and he asked the Captain what happened. I can’t say I blame him, because this was extremely close to disaster. The Captain, however, responded that he didn’t know what was going on and the airplane “just [expletive] rolled on me.” The First Officer continued that he figured for sure they must have lost an engine, but they hadn’t so he was very confused. And he should have been.

The Captain’s responses are far more interesting. He “[expletive] hate flyin’ this thing with any kinda crosswind.” That was a pretty mild crosswind that should have been absolutely routine for a pilot like him.

Then when the flight attendant calls forward, the Captain responds “we think we our, our rudder got
jammed. we’re testing it out right now, we’re just lookin’ at all the flight controls.” And then he starts to trash the airplane.

…Airbus man. this is the kinda [expletive] we don’t like about it. you know there’s so many computers we don’t, we don’t know what it [expletive] does sometimes.

This is all remarkably alarming that he doesn’t seem to realize he actually caused this problem himself. Instead, he blames it on the airplane’s computers. But wait, there’s more from him…

that was a ah full left rudder on the, on the runway to keep it on the runway and then ah the one- the once we got airborne she just went [expletive] tits up

So if I’m understanding his thought process, he felt the need to go full left rudder on the runway because he inexplicably thought it was going to run off the runway without it. But in reality, it was his application of full left rudder that caused this emergency in the first place. He later blames a “faulty system” on his announcement to the passengers as he grasps for something to blame.

After landing, a ramper plugs in and says “Dude there’s extensive damage on that leading edge on that
left hand side. bad damage. What did you hit?”

The response from the cockpit? “Did we hit something?”

Considering there was an audible scraping noise and the flight attendants reported wing damage inflight, it’s hard to understand how they couldn’t have realized they hit something. The whole thing feels so surreal. Did the Captain have a medical emergency that temporarily broke him? It doesn’t seem like he was doing this on purpose. He wasn’t trying to crash the plane. I’m particularly interested in getting inside the Captain’s brain. How did this happen, and how can it be prevented again?

The cherry on top of this weird-sundae is that this Captain is still flying for American today. An American spokesperson explained “Both pilots were accepted into the FAA’s Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP).” That’s the last thing I want to think about when I board my next flight. I’d really like to know how this can be prevented in the future.

44 comments on “The Curious and Frightening Case of American Flight 300’s Near Accident

  1. Pilots – is there ever a circumstance in which full rudder on the ground would be appropriate? My thought is that if you need full rudder to stay on the runway, the crosswinds are too high to safely take off.

    Excellent summary Brett. I hope to see this on my favorite TV program, Airline Disasters, very soon!

    1. Commutair 4933. One that got little to no attention when the report came out weeks ago. And they actually crashed a plane!! Captain was definitely an Aska.

  2. I am no commercial pilot, but I play around in a little SportCruiser from time to time. For anyone who doesn’t know that is, it is a small 2-seater Light Sport plane. It will do a little over 100 knots, and mostly they use it to teach pilots.

    First, if the wind was 17 knots from the north, and they were on Runway 31, they are going at an angle to the wind, so the actual crosswind component is less than 17 knots. It’s a trig equation, and the actual crosswind component was only 10 or 11 knots. That’s even within the acceptable range of the SportCruiser I fly, which is 12 knots.

    Trying to read the captain’s mind from his comments, I think the most logical answer is that he thought the crosswind was much stronger than it actually was, and he overreacted, and almost lost the airplane. I have also seen in some pilot forums that when he did that, the copilot pulled right on the stick instinctively, and they were working against each other for a few seconds.

    Crazy that American almost had another crash at JFK in an Airbus over rudder overuse.

    1. John G – I believe the calculated crosswind component was 14-17 kts. That wasn’t the straight wind speed, if I remember right.

  3. This reminds me of the QR 777 several years ago that hit runway lights in Miami and continued to Doha with the damage. Without even going into the issue of whether he realized he screwed up (which is also concerning), I’m appalled that this captain still flying with the poor judgement he demonstrated by taking an aircraft that had given him such a scare up to 20,000 feet with the intention of continuing to LAX before finally deciding to return to JFK for “political” reasons. I also hope they somehow didn’t realize they hit something because failure to report that would also mean they knowingly put other flights departing off of 31L behind them at risk of colliding with any potential debris on the runway.

  4. > “…Airbus man. this is the kinda [expletive] we don’t like about it”

    Do airline pilots get to bid on the routes they want to fly? If so, why did he pick a route which was flown on exclusively the Airbus? Could he have chosen a route that was flown by a Boeing: say Phoenix to Kansas City (or something like that)?

    After recently reading “Flying Blind”, I gotta say that the A320 series reads (to me) as superior aircraft when compared to the 737s.

    1. More than just bidding for flights, don’t pilots choose the aircraft type (or type rating for multiple similar types) since they have to go through training and checks on it well before anything else? You don’t end up in the cockpit of an A320 just by accident.

    2. Outer Space Guy – Pilots get to bid for the airplane they want to fly and they exclusively fly that airplane until they switch airplanes. This pilot opted to fly the Airbus. Maybe he liked the schedules better than he could get on other types at his base. But he certainly would have been able to fly a different aircraft if he was willing to be flexible.

      1. Here’s the captain’s AA history from the NTSB docket:

        He was hired with American in January 1992 as a DC101 flight engineer. He flew as a flight engineer for 8 months and then received a B767 first officer bid, where he remained for most of the next 20 years. Around 1995 or 1996, he flew the FK-100 out of Chicago for a year then returned to the B767. About three years ago he upgraded to captain on the A320 in November 2015. He has about 25,000 total hours of flight experience and about 3,000 of those hours were in the Airbus, he had about 16,100 hours on the 767, 750 hours in the Fokker, and was not certain how many hours he had as a flight engineer but estimated about 600 or 700 hours. Of the 3,000 hours in the Airbus 320 series he felt the vast majority was in the A321. He normally does Hawaii and transcontinental flights which are done in the A321. He does have some flight experience in the A319 and A320.

  5. I would really love to hear the thoughts of an Airbus pilot here. This is pretty hard for me to assess with no specific knowledge.

  6. Is there any meaningful difference between the policies for American A320 pilots compared to those for United, Delta or other carriers?
    It sounds like (and hopefully is) just a one-off event rather than any systematic problems but if AA’s training or procedures for crosswind takeoffs are different that’s something that could be checked and fixed if needed.

  7. Like John G, I’m a private pilot flying small single engine planes. There’s a few things that stick out to me that are just basic to flying generally.

    If the wind was from his right on take off it would’ve been pushing him left, so I don’t see why he felt the need for left rudder input. Second, when the engines are spooled up, the torque from the turning of the engines generally pulls an aircraft left so right rudder is usually applied (just enough to keep it straight) on takeoff to counter that torque. Third, you’re also taught early, in the event of a crosswind on takeoff, to turn your ailerons into the wind on takeoff so you’re not immediately blown the other way when you lift off the runway.

    Even as a small time fair-weather pilot like myself, I anticipate all these things when I takeoff with or without a crosswind. A pilot of his skill and with his tenure should not have been surprised at how the plane would handle in that situation. And last point…at that level of proficiency, you must be a pro/expert on the aircraft systems on the airplane you fly. You’ve got to know why it does the things it does…none of that “I don’t even know why this things does what it does sometimes.” That’s completely unacceptable and that would make me nervous as a passenger.

    1. Damn I completely missed that the wind was from his right. What the hell was he doing putting in left input at all?

      This wven more makes me think that he was thinking the cross wind was something completely different than it actually was.

    2. That p-factor only happens with centerline mounted props and turboprops. The thrust from the two CFM/IAE wing mounted engines would have given them more symmetrical thrust which would have reduced the need for rudder input, but like you said they still need aileron inputs into the reported wind.

    3. I was also wondering why left rudder with wind from the North. It almost sounds like he was using the wrong rudder, and when the crosswind appeared to get worse (because he was accentuating it with the wrong rudder input), he applied even more rudder to try to correct it. Sounds like a classic “Strength of an idea” disorientation.

    4. Left rudder is appropriate with a crosswind from the right. A crosswind acts on the tail more than the nose, so has a tendency to weathervane the airplane into the wind. Rudder input opposite the direction of the wind is required to keep the airplane tracking the centerline.

      Jet aircraft have no power-related left-turning tendencies to speak of so no right rudder input is required like in many propeller driven airplanes. Turning ailerons into the wind does work on large jet aircraft but it doesn’t work like you’d think. Just enough to keep the wings level during rotation is plenty. It’s really to keep a strong gust from lifting the upwind wing too early but that’s not usually much of a factor for large aircraft if it’s flown within the crosswind limit. Besides, as you roll in more than a small amount of upwind aileron during the takeoff roll, the roll spoilers also rise on the same side, which impacts performance slightly but more importantly makes the weathervaning tendency stronger (more drag on the upwind wing), which means even more downwind rudder is required. I usually don’t bother with it unless the crosswind is strong. Even then I set it and forget it. I’m usually too busy dancing on the rudder pedals to track the centerline in gusty winds (up to 38 kts of crosswind, higher straightline) to try to fool with modulating ailerons at the same time.

      I have a bunch of Airbus time and I have no idea what was going on in his head. The flight computers do very little during the takeoff and landing rolls so there shouldn’t be a sense of “what’s it doing now” in those phases of flight. It’s just an airplane.

  8. That’s the last thing I want to think about when I board my next flight. I’d really like to know how this can be prevented in the future.
    To CF. It’s quite simple in your case: Just don’t fly AA anymore!

  9. I’m moderately interested from the pilots in the forum: Would a 17 kt crosswind be discussed before the flight taking off? Would a rudder command be discussed?

  10. Well there’s a lot to unpack here.

    For starters, AA has had issues previously in their training department. Back when the TWA merger was going on they had a video with an instructor or check airman named Tex in it. And Tex was describing all sorts of wild maneuvers you could use to recover from an upset. One of which was using the rudder as an elevator if you were in a significant roll. Only problem with any of this is that the techniques worked way better in the fighter Tex had flown previously, than in a transport category airplane that had far lower g limits. After the A300 accident that video mysteriously disappeared from the training curriculum, but there’s a fair chance that both pilots had been forced to watch it for the previous decade or so.

    (As an aside, the RAA and NASA put together a beautiful video on tailplane icing following the Eagle 4184 crash that was caused by severe icing. It was heavily used by several training departments, particularly ones that operated turboprops. The main thrust of the training was that in severe icing can cause a tail stall, and in a tail stall your recovery is the exact opposite of a wing stall (you pull back to lower the AOA of the tail, unlike a wing stall where you’d push). Well that video also disappeared pretty quickly following Colgan 3407).

    And I’m perfectly fine with having both those pilots still work for American. That’s how a just safety culture is supposed to work. I guarantee that those aren’t the only 2 guys in a company of 14,000 pilots who could have done the exact same thing. With the ASAP program, everyone has a chance to learn from exactly what happened since nobody needs to worry about covering their butt. Now the company and FAA have valuable insight as to exactly what happened and can modify their training programs appropriately to catch more of these before they happen, and I can bet you both pilots wound up in the simulator for hours after this getting crosswind operations beaten into them (for what it’s worth I’ve never been in a simulator and not had the winds set close to a crosswind limit).

    Lastly, I’m ok with a lot of the discussion on the CVR. The pilots just had a near death experience and I’m sure the adrenaline was flowing. As your body processes what just happened you’re going to have a ton of nervous energy flowing through your system. They could have certainly done things better after the mishap, but how many people would react with complete poise after they’ve just been in a car accident?

    While there are definitely things to learn from this accident, and the industry/FAA will certainly digest this, it’s always entertaining to see the Monday morning quarterbacking by people who’ve never been in that situation, and don’t have a clue as to the nuance or context that these situations often entail.

  11. I’m fine with them still flying for AA. They both retrained and everyone got to learn from this accident through the ASAP program.

  12. This was definitely a case of lousy airmanship, but Douglas & Boeing aircraft have a :::: significant :::: advantage over Airbus aircraft:

    – the pilots can FEEL what the plane is doing

    Airbus planes are all fly-by-wire, and until recently, pilots had to LOOK to see what the plane was doing, whereas a Boeing & Douglas model, which uses a combination of FBW & pulleys/gears, you can close your eyes and know exactly what the plane is doing because of the feedback on the rudder pedals and control column. Just like in your car, you feel the steering wheel but also whats going on…. think of when you are on ice/driving in water, you can get feel whats going on with your tires.

    Lots of pilots struggle when transitioning from Boeing to Airbus because of this (and Ive had friends in this boat). One reason many regionals love hiring new pilots with Cessna Caravan (and 402) time- it means they just didnt build hours watching a plane fly itself (autopilot) or students.

    1. Does that “:::: significant :::: advantage” have any real life impact on safety stats/accident rates for Boeing/Douglas aircraft vs. Airbus?

      Also, is what you describe true for newer design Boeing aircraft such as the 787 or the 777X?

  13. I’d like to understand more about the ASAP program – what does “being accepted into the program” mean both for the pilots (although AA and other large US airlines participate in ASAP for all workgroups /functions that the FAA offers) and the airline.
    I don’t want to see anyone lose their job – which would end their career – for mistakes whether out of ignorance of neglect but I’d like to know the process of being cleared and considered retrained.

    For the airline, how does the FAA “piece together” ASAP incidents to ensure that airlines are training for potentially systemic issues in airline culture and training.

    It should come as no surprise that Airbus aircraft don’t operate like Boeings but that should have been abundantly understood years before this accident for everyone involved – not just intellectually but in every aspect of how the aircraft is flown. Given the similarities with AA’s A300 disaster, also at JFK, you have to ask if there are alot more pilots that have not fully made the transition from other aircraft. GIven the size of AA’s Airbus fleet, one of if not the largest in the world, doing a career at AA staying away from the A320 family has to be a determined effort.

    This could have turned out very differently for American and the crew and passengers’ lives. Everyone has to be thankful the plane was as resilient as it was.

  14. This feels like the sort of incident where one pilot becomes completely convinced that reality is something very different than what it actually is, so what to them seem like normal and reasonable actions are in actuality very wrong. It’s an easy enough trap to fall into when interpreting something unusual (Atlas, for example) but you can prime yourself for it by having poor knowledge, trust, or even fear of the plane.

  15. I’m not a pilot, so this might be a dumb question. But I thought that the rudder controls yaw only and not roll. So for the airplane to lower a wing as indicated in Cranky’s (masterful as always) image above, there would have had to be an incorrect or at least far too aggressive aileron input, right? So I’m confused as to why all the focus on the rudder when it seems like the aileron input was the problem.

    1. https://www.boldmethod.com/learn-to-fly/maneuvers/decreasing-aileron-during-crosswind-takeoff-roll/

      Here is a discussion of a takeoff into a crosswind. You are theorectically anyway supposed to turn your ailerons into the wind, then use rudder to keep the nose straight. As Ted said, the rudder controls the yaw, not the roll.

      If you don’t apply a correction, the crosswind will tend to try to lift the upwind wing (the right side in this case). That can tend to make the airplane skip sideways, though that’s more of a problem for lighter planes. So you would push the stick to the right to overcome that, but without rudder input now the plane will want to yaw to the right, trying to roll off the runway in that direction. Thus, you correct for that by applying (light) pressure to the left rudder.

      So if they are supposed to have right aileron input, how did the plane get to be tilted left by more than 30 degrees? Someone had to input left aileron, or pushing left on the stick.

      It seems like someone either panicked and overcorrected, or they were working against each other.

      I am NOT a jet pilot, and maybe the commands are a bit different for a multi engine jet. But I still think the most likely thing was the captain misread the wind, put in the wrong inputs, and they fought each other for a few seconds to get it corrected.

      1. My understanding of the Airbus flight system is that only one pilot has control and the other pilot’s controls are essentially inoperable unless they tell the computer they are taking over. I don’t think the pilots can “fight” each other with the controls. I may be totally wrong, and I’d love for someone with more knowledge to weigh in.

    2. If you yaw enough, that can also induce roll, as the wing that is now further “downwind” from the direction of flight will lose some lift. The plane won’t stay completely static in the other axis just because you are only manipulating one control. It’s all connected, and you’re in the air, unlike a car where one control does one thing because contact with the ground (mostly) prevents movement in other directions.

  16. “I’d really like to know how this can be prevented in the future.“ Firing this angry pilot would be a start. He terrorizes a planeload and causes the demolition of a fairly new A321. Makes you wonder about AA’s judgment even before he was found to be at fault. I’ll be looking left for a glowering 58-year-old pilot next time I do AA transcon.

  17. This Captain really provea the axiom that it’s a poor musician who blames his instrument!

  18. And now we have pending legislation to increase pilot retirement age from age 65 to age 68 minus a day.

    1. They should approve that legislation. Arbitrary retirement at age 65 should be tossed out.

      Airline pilots are subject to mandatory medical exams, and pilots over 40 have to complete them every 2 years. They will ground pilots for things like angina, heart bypasses, diabetes (if it requires medication), and epilepsy, among other maladies. They also will not allow pilots with bipolar disorder to fly, due to sad prior events of such pilots intentionally crashing planes.

      There is no reason why a 66 or 67 year old person that can pass that exam should be forced to retire if they choose not to.

      1. Not sure what that has to do with the issue of allowing pilots to work til 68. If nothing else, we could allow them with a rule that only one pilot over 65 can work a flight. There is a reason we have two.

  19. I’ve read thru the main report and most of the docket. Some people on this and other sites are making a big deal of the CVR transcript once they were airborne, but I think much of that is overblown. These guys had just had the worst moment of their professional lives. They made the correct decision to return promptly to JFK. The captain fibbed a bit to the pax on the PA, but that’s certainly not the first time that’s happened. What was he going to say, I just botched the takeoff and I’ve asked the FO to get us back in one piece? Not likely.

    After they got to the gate, they and the airline took steps to preserve the CVR data. That’s more than Air Canada could be bothered to do after they almost landed on top of several other aircraft on the taxiway at SFO.

    It’s odd that the report says that drug/alcohol screening was not done. That should be standard in this case. Indeed, in the interview with the FO he describes waiting at the airport for it to be conducted. So something is up here. Perhaps there were procedural errors in the collection process. Some information is definitely being withheld. Though I doubt either pilot would still be employed at American if it was really suspect.

    The big issue is why the captain’s crosswind takeoff was so poor. The answer to that is between him and his employer. Hopefully it’s been squared away. And the fruits of a non-punitive safety culture should be that everyone can learn from it, and the airline can improve its training program as needed.

    Bottom line is that everyone walked away uninjured after a scary upset. That counts for a lot.

    1. From what I’ve heard the wing box was also bent. That doesn’t get replaced.

      I’m sure a significant number of parts of that thing were harvested for use elsewhere.

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