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Douglas Petitions NTSB For Change In Northwest Crash Finding

April 23, 1989

DETROIT (AP) _ The pilots involved in a deadly 1987 airliner crash, blamed in part on a warning system failure, may have intentionally disconnected a similar alarm on another jet two days earlier, the plane’s maker says.

In a petition filed with the National Transportation Safety Board, Douglas Aircraft Co., a division of McDonnell Douglas Corp., said the pilots pulled a warning system circuit breaker on the first plane, interrupting power to the system and silencing an unwanted warning, The Detroit News reported Sunday.

The same pilots, John Maus and David Dodds, were in control of Northwest Flight 255, a McDonnell Douglas MD-80, when it crashed on takeoff at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Aug. 16, 1987.

The pilots died, along with 154 other people, including two people on the ground. The only survivor from the plane was a 4-year-old girl. It was the second worst aircraft accident in U.S. history behind the 1979 crash of an American Airlines jet near Chicago that killed 275 people.

The NTSB concluded last May that the warning system on the MD-80 failed to alert the pilots that they hadn’t set the wing flaps and slats, which provide added lift for takeoff.

The board faulted the pilots for not setting the flaps and slats and failing to complete a routine preflight checklist. The board also said power to the warning system was interrupted, but couldn’t determine why.

Douglas’ petition, obtained by the newspaper, cited a note written by Northwest pilot Merrill Hodges in September 1987. Hodges said he found an alarm system circuit breaker pulled on another MD-80 jet flown by Maus and Dodds.

Flight records show Maus and Dodds landed that plane in Santa Ana, Calif., on Aug. 14, 1987, and the plane stayed on the ground until Hodges entered the cockpit the next day, Douglas’ petition said.

″The unavoidable conclusion is that the absence of power to the takeoff warning system was the flight crew’s intentional disablement of the takeoff warning,″ the petition said.

Northwest lawyer Carroll Dubuc said Douglas’ petition doesn’t raise anything new and promised to file a response that will rebut Douglas’ claim.

The newspaper quoted an unidentified official of the Air Line Pilots Association as saying the claim is false. The official said the union also is preparing a response.

Douglas’ petition, filed Feb. 17, asked for a modification of the ″probable cause″ finding on the crash adopted by the NTSB last May. Douglas’ proposal would blame the crash solely on the crew and exonerate the warning system.

More than 100 lawsuits have been filed by relatives of passengers killed in the crash. Douglas could try to use a change in the NTSB ruling to reduce its liability.

Elayne Bendel, a representative of Douglas, acknowledged the petition contains no hard evidence to indicate when or where Maus and Dodds pulled the circuit breakers.

However, she said, ″We feel the highest probability is that the crew disarmed the system.″

The NTSB said it was possible the crew pulled the circuit breaker, but could find no evidence of it. Nor could the board substantiate Northwest and the pilot association’s claims that the circuit breaker was faulty.