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.
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.