NTSB Faults Crew, Maintenance In MD-80 Incident

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Mechanics at American Airlines used the wrong procedure to manually start an engine, and when the left engine caught fire during the departure climb the crew mishandled the emergency, the NTSB said this week. The MD-80 was taking off from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in September 2007 when the left engine caught fire. The crew turned back to the airfield, but the nose gear wouldn't extend, so they went around, got the gear down, then landed on the runway -- with the engine still burning -- and safely deplaned all 143 pax and crew. It sounds like a pretty good outcome to a dicey situation, but the NTSB was not impressed. "The Board examined how the flight crew handled the in-flight emergency and found their performance to be lacking," says Tuesday's news release. The crew got distracted from the engine-fire checklist at a critical point, which prolonged the fire and led to the loss of hydraulic pressure, which caused the nose gear failure. The first officer at one point mistakenly fed fuel to the burning engine, which could have exacerbated the fire, the board said. "Here is an accident where things got very complicated very quickly and where flight crew performance was very important," said NTSB Acting Chairman Mark Rosenker. "Unfortunately, the lack of adherence to procedures ultimately led to many of this crew's in-flight challenges." Yet despite its criticism of the crew, the board found that the decisions they made were "reasonable ... appropriate.... [and] prudent." As a result of this investigation, the NTSB wants the FAA to ensure that flight crews are trained to handle multiple emergencies simultaneously and to communicate effectively with the cabin crew.

The board also found fault with the maintenance procedures that led to the engine problem. "The airline's own internal maintenance system, the purpose of which is to catch maintenance and mechanical issues that could lead to an incident or accident, failed to do what it was designed to do," said Rosenker. "And that allowed this sequence of events to get rolling, which ultimately resulted in the accident. Following the appropriate maintenance procedures would have gone a long way toward preventing this mishap." More details can be found in the NTSB's news release and synopsis. The full report will be posted online in a few weeks.