Experts Testify About Weather at Hearing; Pilots’ Statements Released
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ Airport weather conditions deteriorated ″abruptly and dramatically″ in the minutes before USAir Flight 1016 crashed in July, an air traffic controller testified Monday.
Just minutes before the crash, conditions had been so good that controller Fred Masi told the crew to make a visual landing.
″It was a normal flight, a normal final approach,″ Masi said at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing. ″Everything was by the book.″
Severe thunderstorms that moved into the area changed everything. Masi ordered an instrument landing, and despite a desperate attempt by pilots to avoid disaster, the DC-9 crashed, killing 37 passengers.
Masi was one of the first witnesses to testify at the hearing on the July 2 crash. Beforehand the board released a stack of reports including statements from the two pilots. The firsthand accounts reveal new details about the last moments in the cockpit.
While wind shear - a sudden, dangerous shift in wind speed and direction - has gotten much attention as a probable cause of the crash, the pilots said the rain had been their last and biggest concern.
″I recall hearing ATC (air traffic control) broadcast a wind shear advisory,″ Capt. Michael R. Greenlee said in his statement to investigators. ″At about this time, rain intensity increased abruptly and dramatically. I do not ever recall seeing rain fall that heavily.″
Greenlee and First Officer James Hayes reported losing visibility completely when they had descended to about 1,200 feet. Greenlee ordered Hayes, who was at the controls, to abort the landing at full power.
″Captain Greenlee called FIRE WALL,″ Hayes said, using an aviation term for maximum power. ″He then placed his right hand over my left hand. We pushed the throttle to the fire wall.″
Gregory Feith, the chief NTSB investigator of the crash, said the board’s findings to date show no indications of mechanical malfunction, but the hearing would explore how the aircraft reacted during the heavy rainstorm.
John Hammerschmidt, chairman of the NTSB’s board of inquiry, emphasized that the 4-day hearing was a fact-finding mission and would not end with a determination of the cause of the crash.
Greenlee and Hayes are to testify Tuesday.
At a news conference before the hearing, a spokesman for the Airline Pilots Association, Capt. Tom Kraemer, blamed the weather service and the government for the pilots not getting enough early weather information.
″In our view, if most of the weather information had been relayed to the crew ... the pilot would have broken off his landing approach sooner than he did,″ said Kraemer, a Boeing 767 pilot with USAir for more than 25 years.
The union also called on the government to speed up installation of advanced Doppler radar equipment at Charlotte and other airports.
The hearing comes in the wake of the Sept. 8 crash of USAir Flight 427 near Pittsburgh.
So far, federal officials have no explanation why the Boeing 737-300 jetliner suddenly dropped 6,000 feet and nose-dived into a ravine at 300 mph. The tremendous force of impact shattered the plane and killed all 132 people on board.
On Monday police guarded the Pennsylvania crash site from gawkers and souvenir hunters. Over the weeekend a cleanup crew sowed grass seed and scattered granulated lime to decontaminate the area.