In episode 89 of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, we explore the crash of American Airlines Flight 1420, which happened upon landing in a thunderstorm on June 1, 1999. The aircraft overshot the runway and then collided with runway equipment, causing the plane to break apart, killing the captain and ten passengers. The investigation found that not only were the pilots fatigued, but they were under immense pressure brought to land at any cost. This pressure caused them to forget to deploy the plane’s spoilers, which prevented the plane from stopping after landing. The true legacy of Flight 1420 is the revelation that this situation was not isolated; in fact, an industry-wide problem of “get-there-itis” existed in which pilots faced industry pressure to try and land on time despite dangerous storm conditions.
American Airlines Flight 1420 Delayed Two Hours Due to Storms Before Taking Off
It’s the night of June 1st, 1999, and American Airlines Flight 1420 is scheduled to leave around 9 PM from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) to Little Rock National Airport in the United States. But things aren’t going according to schedule when the flight is delayed due to summer thunderstorms rolling through parts of the southern United States during that time of year.
With the area storms delaying the takeoff of many flights this night, the flight crew of 1420 has an extra reason for urgently wanting to get their plane off the ground: the crew was approaching their mandatory maximum duty time, and if the plane did not take off from Dallas in the next hour, then Flight 1420 would be cancelled.
But this flight crew is not about to let that happen. Commanding this McDonnell Douglas MD-82 is Captain Richard Buschmann, age 48, who is a very experienced chief pilot with over ten thousand total flight hours, of which about half were accumulated flying the MD-80 series of aircraft. Captain Buschmann graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1972, serving in the Air Force until 1979, and was hired by American Airlines in July 1979. Experienced at flying the Boeing 727 for American, he transitioned to flying the twin-engined MD-80 series in 1991.
The flight's first officer is Michael Origel, age 35, who has been with the airline for less than a year and has only 182 hours of flight time with American Airlines as an MD-80 pilot. Despite his newer record with the airline, First Officer Origel had trained as a pilot with the United States Navy and had prior commercial flight experience as a corporate pilot, with a total of almost 4300 hours.
Still intent upon taking off, the pilots have been briefed on the storms that are fanning out around the area. During their preflight briefing, the pilots receive an American Airlines weather advisory that reported a widely scattered area of thunderstorms along the planned route along with two weather advisories issued by the National Weather Service for an area of severe thunderstorms along the planned route. Despite the gloomy weather reports, the pilots feel confident they can still beat the storm and arrive in Little Rock before things get too bad.
Eventually, Flight 1420 gets the OK to takeoff – about 2 hours 12 minutes later than the scheduled departure time. Captain Buschmann will be the flying pilot, and the first officer will be the nonflying pilot. The two pilots are also joined by four flight attendants and 139 passengers this night, bringing the total count of people onboard to 145.
American Airlines Flight 1420 Flight Crew Plans Flight Through “Bowling Alley” Between Storm Cells
As the crew is busy working through the takeoff and climb, the storms are beginning to gather in strength around the airport at their destination in Little Rock. This prompts the flight dispatcher to send the flight crew of 1420 an inflight message warning of the weather around Little Rock, and he has a suggestion for the flight crew as they plan for their arrival.
Here is what the message said: “Right now on radar there is a large slot to Little Rock. Thunderstorms are on the left and right, and Little Rock is in the clear. Sort of like a bowling alley approach. Thunderstorms are moving east-northeastward toward Little Rock and they may be a factor for our arrival. I suggest expediting our arrival in order to beat the thunderstorms to Little Rock if possible.”
The flight crew acknowledges receipt and agrees with this approach – they will proceed to go through the “bowling alley” between the walls of the two storm cells.
About thirty minutes before landing, and when the plane is still about 100 miles (or 161 km) away from the airport, Captain Buschmann and First Officer Origel begin to plan and prepare for the landing. They also keep a close eye on the storms displayed their onboard colorized weather radar, which shows convective activity, or strong storms, in orange and red.
As they get closer to the airport, storms are all around the aircraft. The pilots discuss the weather and immediately see the need to expedite the approach to the airport. Confirming this strategy, Captain Buschmann says, “we got to get over there quick.” And about 5 seconds later, the first officer said, “I don’t like that…that’s lightning,” to which the captain replied, “sure is.” This is right about the time when the flight crew can see the lights of the airport below them and when controllers clear Flight 1420 to descend to 10,000 feet (or 3048 meters).
Captain Buschmann’s announcement to the cabin at this point is routine. He acknowledges that passengers should see lightning on both sides of the plane but that the flight was passing through it on their way to land. But soon after this announcement, the plane begins to shake with turbulence and passengers would be able to see lightning dancing around them on all sides.
While Planning the Approach, American 1420 Flies Directly into Storm
The pilots can still see what they believe is the bowling alley open on their radar screens, but when they contact the controller on the ground at Little Rock, the controller reports that the storm is moving through the area just northwest of the airport with a crosswind coming in at 280 degrees and winds gusting between 28 and 44 knot. These are gale-force winds. This, of course, makes the pilots concerned about the danger posed by crosswinds, which happen when winds are flowing perpendicular to the line or direction of travel. These can make landings and takeoffs more difficult, and in worst cases, cause damage to an airplane. Pilots pay attention to the angle of a crosswind as well as its speed to properly position the airplane in such a way so that is not jeopardized by a crosswind.
This information prompts the captain and first officer to discuss American Airlines’ crosswind limitation for landing. The captain indicates that 30 knots is the crosswind limitation, but then he realizes that this is the limitation for a dry runway. The captain then clarifies the wet runway crosswind limitation is 20 knots, but the first officer disagrees and says the limitation is 25 knots. This discussion ends without an overt conclusion, but the impression is that both pilots agree that while they are close to the crosswind landing limit, they are within limits and can proceed with landing.
Flight 1420 then descends to 3,000 feet (or 914 meters). The next weather report from the controller about conditions on the ground is even more troubling: he notifies them of a windshear alert, which is a sudden change in wind direction over a short distance. The controller reports that the crosswind is now 340 degrees at 10 knots, and the north boundary wind is 330 degrees at 25 knots. Captain Buschmann recognizes that this angle, 340 degrees, means they are coming into a tailwind. If the wind is behind them, it could shoot the plane too far forward when it lands. This all means the crew needs to reverse the direction in which they are headed toward the runway to face the wind instead of it being behind them.
While this is a prudent move, the plane must turn around, a move that delays them from landing for another 10 minutes. And all the while, the storms are growing in intensity. As they loop back to the southwest, First Officer Origel could sometimes see the runway, but Captain Buschmann could not.
First Officer Origel told the controller that they had the runway in sight, and the controller asked if they wanted to use the instrument landing system or “shoot the visual approach.” The pilots decided to make a visual approach because they could see the runway – and, more importantly, it would be faster.
Stressful Cockpit Conditions Pressure American Airlines Flight 1420 Crew to Make Landing
But before long, shifting clouds get in the way of the visual approach. First Officer Origel then tells the controller they would like to be guided onto an Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach instead. The implication of this decision is clear: a loop even farther to the southwest of the airport would take them out of the bowling alley and into another cell of the storm. Then Captain Buschmann says, “I hate droning around visual at night in weather without having some clue where I am.”
As Flight 1420 gets closer to landing, the aircraft and its passengers are in the full force of the storm. The controller continues to report wind direction and wind speeds, which still indicate strong gusts. Blinding rain now obstructs the pilots’ view of the runway just below. Visibility on the runway (known as RVR for Runway Visibility Range) is down to just 3,000 feet (or 914 meters), which is dangerously low.
Captain Buschmann asks, “Can we land? 3,000 RVR, we can’t land on that.”
First Officer Origel points out that the minimum visibility for landing on runway 4 right was 2,400 feet. Now lined up with the runway, the pilots continued the approach.
Then visibility falls drastically below the limit. RVR is now 1,600 feet (or 487 meters). The plane is jostling right and left. This is a treacherous final approach. At 11:49, descending through an altitude of 880 feet (or just 268 meters) above ground level, Captain Buschmann said, “This is a can of worms!”
One minute later, Flight 1420 touches down at 11:50 PM– and hard. Immediately, First Officer Origel shouts, “We’re down! We’re sliding!”
American Airlines Flight 1420 Lands on Runway, Crashes into Runway Equipment and a Marsh
And this is exactly what is happening. With the strong, blowing crosswind that is hitting the plane, it is sliding almost sideways now. The pilots deployed the thrust reversers and hammer the brakes, but these do not stop the plane, which speeds toward the end of the runway, swaying wildly back and forth, until it runs completely off the pavement onto the grass at 99 mph (or 160kph).
Now on the grass, the plane bounces around at this high rate of speed, striking part of the ILS localizer. Still going, the plane skids over the edge of a 24.6 foot (or 7.5-meter) embankment and slams into an elevated metal walkway supporting a lighting system for another runway. When the plane collides with the metal walkway, it slices through the cockpit and tears away the left wall of the first-class cabin from bulkhead to bulkhead. In this horrific moment, Captain Buschmann and one passenger are instantly killed. The plane finally crashes into the ground, breaking up into three pieces. Another three passengers die instantly when rows 17 and 18 are ejected from the plane and are thrown into flames during the breakup.
When the plane finally comes to a rest, things are at first eerily silent. But the danger is far from over: flames erupt at the front of the broken tail section, which contain about half the passengers. As people struggle desperately to reach for emergency exits, smoke pours into the cabin. Those who escape do so through the emergency exits located over the wings and through gaps in the fuselage, but four passengers are unable to get out in time and perish from smoke inhalation.
In the cockpit, somehow First Officer Origel has survived, but his leg is trapped and broken in three places. In the minutes after the crash, he uses his cell phone to call the American Airlines operations center to inform them of the crash, then calls his wife.
The arrival of rescue personnel takes 18 minutes from the time of the crash – and here is why. As soon as the controllers realize that flight 1420 is missing, they alert the airport’s emergency services, but the controller didn’t specify at which end of the runway the plane had crashed. When emergency services finally arrive, most of the passengers had already escaped and were huddled near the plane. With the help of the rain, the firefighters quickly extinguish the fire, then enter the plane and work to free those who were trapped, including First Officer Origel, whom it took an hour and a half to free after rescuers cut away the debris that had pinned him in his seat.
In the week after the crash, two more passengers die of their injuries, including a twelve-year-old Rachel Fuller, the youngest victim, bringing the final death toll to 11 (this includes the Captain plus 10 passengers). One hundred and ten others are injured. At the time of the crash, this was American Airlines’ third major accident and second fatal accident in less than five years.
American Airlines Flight 1420 Passengers Recall Terrifying Crash Landing
Stories from passengers have continued to be shared with the press since the crash. What follows is a combined account based on many witness accounts. As the plane landed, it came down hard, and many passengers felt something wasn’t right. Perhaps sensing the rising panic flowing through the cabin, flight attendants reportedly called out, “It’s the landing ger coming down, just the landing gear.” But soon, it became apparent even to them that the plane was not going to stop. People could feel the brakes and the reverse thrusters engaging but then it felt like they both stopped working, and the plane kept going and going, hurtling forward. Mud and dirt flew past the windows on both sides as the plane careened out of control. Once the plane tumbled and broke apart and came to an abrupt stop, rows of passengers stood at the same time with the same goal in mind: the get out of that plane. Seconds later, the fire erupted, and black smoke began to envelop row after row. Passengers all rush around, trying to find a way out, trampling over one another, including over those who are injured. A flight attendant ran to one of the exit doors and tried frantically to open it. It would not budge. Frustrated, a male passenger beside her tried to open it himself, but it just would not come open.
Then, with a flash of lightning, a hole in the fuselage was illuminated and people began to jump out of this section of the plane, one by one, falling into a watery marsh right below. One of the flight attendants landed in the water and began screaming, “I can’t swim! I can’t swim!” She was pulled out to safety by several passengers. Friends and families began to search for one another amid the driving storm, huddling together in terror, their tears mixing in with the rain. Waiting for someone to come and help them.
NTSB Investigation into American 1420 Crash Focuses on Pilots’ Choice to Land During Storm
The National Transportation Safety Board (or NTSB) immediately gets to work, and, thankfully, they can interview survivors to help form accounts of what happened on the plane.
Investigators eventually conclude that the pilots felt pressure to land the plane, which was the reason behind this and many other mistakes. The first clear error according to the NTSB is that given the weather conditions happening around the airport, Captain Buschmann should have aborted the landing. They even refer to Captain Buschmann’s own words when he said, “I hate droning around visual at night in weather without, having some clue where I am.” He didn’t know where he was. He should have aborted the landing.
It is also found that the pilots never should have landed for another reason: the crosswinds at the time of landing exceeded what was allowable under American Airlines policy (and spelled out in the runway manual). According to American’s flight manual, the maximum crosswind component landing on a runway with an RVR less than 4,000 feet was 15 knots. By the time they were on the runway, RVR was 1,600 feet and the latest winds reported by the controller resulted in a crosswind component of 23 knots for the steady-state wind and 34 knots for the gusting wind. And when First Officer Origel read back the transmission about the crosswind, he accidentally said “zero three zero” degrees instead of “three five zero.” Had the wind direction actually been zero three zero (like he said) it would have been a headwind, not a crosswind, and landing would have been allowed and would have resulted in a crosswind component under 10 knots. Lastly, neither pilot cross-checked American’s manual during this discussion.
But because the plane did attempt to land, one of the biggest questions investigators need to answer is, why the plane did not stop once it landed on the runway? After talking to many passengers who sat near the plane’s wings and could see outside the window, investigators begin to doubt whether the plane’s spoilers had been properly configured for landing. Spoilers flip up during landing and disrupt the airflow over the wing, slowing the plane down. The data from the flight data recorder confirms that the spoilers had not deployed, and the reason is that the pilots simply forgot to pull the handle that deploys them. This is a fatal mistake on the parts of the pilots.
This finding is devastating as it proves that the plane would not have been able to stop without them. Had the spoilers been deployed, the plane likely still would have overshot the runway, but it would not have gone as far as it did.
The NTSB report also cited fatigue as a contributing factor. The captain had been awake for 16 hours that day; research indicates that after being awake for 13 hours, pilots make considerably more mistakes. The time of the crash occurred several hours after both pilots' usual bedtime. The first officer reported feeling tired that night and a yawn was heard on the CVR.
Eighteen months after the crash, the NTSB determines that the probable causes of this accident were two key failures on the part of the flight crew: 1) failure to discontinue the approach when severe thunderstorms posed a hazard to flight operations and 2) failure to ensure that the spoilers had extended after touchdown. Contributing to the crash was the behaviors exhibited by the crew due to working under the situational pressures of the moment, lack of ample sleep on the part of the flight crew, and landing on a runway where crosswinds exceeded the allowable limit. In all, the NTSB makes 25 safety recommendations stemming from the crash.
Following American 1420 Fatal Crash, Airline Reluctant to Accept Blame
Despite all these facts, American Airlines was very reluctant to admit their pilots had done any wrongdoing. In fact, American even pursued legal action against the authorities who controlled the airport and blamed the air traffic controller who was handling the flight. American claimed their flight crew had not been given all the weather information they needed to make their decisions, but that was simply not the case. In fact, the onboard radar system on the plane was arguably better than what the controllers were seeing that night.
The passengers and their families grow impatient with American Airlines and seek to ensure the airline was accountable for the crash. Despite the high number of survivors, many passengers were nonetheless left with serious injuries, including burns from the fire and psychological trauma from the whole experience of almost dying, and many felt that American Airlines had minimized what they had all gone through.
American Airlines Flight 1420 Public Hearings on Crash Include Controversies About Pilots
Many passengers and families of the deceased attend the NTSB’s public hearings on the crash in January 2000, about seven months after the crash. The testimony they hear, especially that of the surviving First Officer, enrages many of the survivors and proves to be controversial. First Officer Origel claims he told Captain Buschmann to abort the landing and perform a go around. But these words are never found by the NTSB on the cockpit voice recorder, even after isolating the vocals of each pilot.
The second revelation from the public hearings was about American Airline’s policy of pilots flying near thunderstorms. To the NTSB, they find the policy is not clear-cut enough and leaves too much open to the discretion of the pilot and should provide clearer parameters to pilots.
The crash of Flight 1420 also leads the NTSB to study pilot behavior in inclement weather and to determine the impact the storms may have had on the pilots' decision-making process while approaching Little Rock National Airport. What they find is that a major problem extends throughout the entire industry of pilots, not just these pilots and not just within American Airlines.
MIT Study Following American 1420 Crash Reveals Problems Across Pilot Industry
Experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (or MIT) performed a study recording behavior of pilots landing at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, which aimed to see whether pilots were willing to land in thunderstorms. The study finds that 70% of pilots flew into thunderstorms during landing attempts. The study also found that pilots exhibited more recklessness if they fell behind schedule, if they were attempting to land at night, and if aircraft in front of them successfully landed in similar weather. Basically, the exact conditions surrounding Flight 1420.
What this means for Flight 1420 is that Captain Buschmann and First Officer Origel were a part of a system that normalized getting to the destination on time at any cost. NTSB investigator Greg Feith called it “get-there-itis.”
American Airlines eventually admitted liability for the crash and reached settlement agreements with a majority of the passengers and their families.
American Flight 1420 Captain Proves to be Divisive Figure in Memory of Some Passengers and Families
Part of the controversy of Flight 1420 also surrounds the culpability of Captain Buschmann and to what extent the victims and their families hold him mostly accountable for the crash. First, a 2004 memorial ceremony was held adjacent to the airport, and several survivors strongly objected to memorializing Captain Buschmann.
Second, and following the crash, a federal jury in Little Rock awarded Captain Buschmann's family $2 million because the jury decided that the captain was not at fault for his own death, which only occurred because the aircraft collided with the walkway that should not have been there and because, allegedly, the spoilers had malfunctioned (not through the captain's fault). For some, this verdict has completely absolved Captain Buschmann of all fault for the crash, but not for the NTSB, which has not changed its probable-cause ruling.
Regardless of how you feel about the Captain’s level of fault, perhaps a lawyer who was a part of the a court-appointed Plaintiffs' Steering Committee, said it best: "after all these years [whether Captain Buschmann was "absolved" of all responsibility for the crash] is still a matter that reasonable people who are fully informed may disagree on", however, there should be consensus that ”flight operations should not be conducted in the terminal area when thunderstorms are on the flight path, and non-frangible objects should not be placed where it is foreseeable an aircraft may go."
And those are the unfortunate and tragic facts that led to the crash of American Airlines Flight 1420.