LAX 24L: A Runway With A Tragic History

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After having had scores of airline crew overnights in Los Angeles over the last 32 years, in a variety of area hotels, one I stayed in recently had special meaning for me.

As I arose in the morning and opened the drapes, I was presented with a direct view of the approach end of Runway 24L at LAX. It was one of those rare and melancholy moments in life that spur deep reflection. I pulled up a chair to the window just as one of my company’s aircraft was gracefully touching down.

My mind drifted back more than 28 years when in a previous life I had a training/evaluating position at SkyWest Airlines. When administering recurrent checkrides in those days, a common scenario was to position the rudimentary SA227 Metroliner simulator position at LAX, primarily using Runway 24L for departures and 24R for the requisite instrument approaches. The simulator itself was physically located in Salt Lake City; however, for purposes of the checkride, its simulated position would be in Los Angeles. Today’s modern flight simulators can be virtually positioned at any major airport in the world.

One simulator session that I administered that I will never forget was with a captain by the name of Andy Lucas.

One of the federally mandated squares to fill on a checkride form is a rejected takeoff in minimal visibility. As I was role playing the applicable air traffic controllers, I cleared the flight for takeoff with the advisory of “no delay, traffic on final.” Prior to the V1 takeoff decision speed, I initiated the anomaly that would inherently require the takeoff abort. The captain’s subsequent rejected takeoff was perfectly performed per our procedures and performance standards.

Once the procedures were complete, the captain commanded the first officer to immediately advise the control tower that they had aborted the takeoff and had remained on the runway. While most professional pilots have no trouble with the mechanical procedures like a rejected takeoff, a lot of pilots often miss some of the broader, what we call situational-awareness aspects like an aircraft behind on short final. This especially true in simulators, which no matter how realistic they get, still amount to role playing and pretending that it’s all real.

I made a special note of Captain Lucas’ superior level of situational awareness and effort in my attaboy notes for the checkride debrief to follow. Before the ride was over, I had several attaboy notes compiled. Check airmen often say that the checkrides they most remember are the really bad ones and the really good ones. The majority are soon forgotten, but I still remember that particular event as it was truly exceptional.

Within a few weeks of that simulator check ride, Captain Andy Lucas was killed in a tragic accident … at LAX … Runway 24L. You’ll probably remember it. He died while sitting in position on the runway awaiting takeoff clearance as directed by the control tower while a USAir Boeing 737 that had been previously cleared to land touched down just a few feet behind the Metroliner and crushed them on the rollout. This caused both aircraft to slide en masse until careening into a vacant fire/rescue office, killing the USAir captain who had actually survived the initial collision with the other aircraft.

Other crew members who perished in addition to Captain Lucas were SkyWest First Officer Frank Prentice, USAir Captain Colin Shaw, and a USAir flight attendant, along with 32 passengers on both aircraft who died either by collision trauma, subsequent fire or smoke inhalation. From my vantage point at the hotel window, I could clearly see the exact spot where the tragedy had happened 28 years earlier.

As the check airman who had administered the deceased SkyWest captain’s most recent evaluation, I participated to a small degree in the subsequent investigation of the accident. Like most aircraft accidents, there was no one single smoking gun failure that could be attributed as the primary cause. It was a tragic quilt of otherwise minor anomalies that came together at precisely the worst moment causing a horrible loss of life and treasure.

Both crews were doing exactly what they were directed to do by a controller who was twice distracted by other errant aircraft, one on the ground, one in the air, neither of which were tuned into the proper frequency they were assigned to. There was also something as silly as a poorly placed light pole that insidiously obstructed the tower’s view of the Metroliner on the runway, and a seemingly innocuous airframe design decision decades earlier that turned out to be complicit in the error chain.

A re-creation of the accident scenario on the subsequent day with the same visibility conditions (setting sun in a thick haze) showed that a Metroliner sitting in position on the runway—at an intersection near the touchdown zone—was essentially invisible from behind until it was too late to correct. The small steady white light on the tail just blended in devilishly with the runway lights. It was reported that the USAir crew first noticed the sitting Metroliner when their landing lights illuminated the propeller arcs, the fate for both, already sealed.

That one accident, like most do, catalyzed myriad changes to procedure, airport design and even aircraft configuration. Intersection takeoffs after sunset were prohibited in most cases. The tail lights on Metroliners and other similar aircraft were changed to higher visibility strobe lights. Procedures were changed in cockpits and control towers the world over. An abandoned and vacant building was torn down. It had been in just the wrong place and caught the intertwined aircraft as they slid, killing the USAir captain and igniting the fire that killed several of the passengers who actually survived the initial impact.

The first responders on the scene didn’t even know that there were two aircraft involved until an alert fireman noticed a propeller blade underneath the primary wreckage and knew that Boeing aircraft didn’t have propellers.

The accident was a catalyst for today’s highly advanced runway incursion lighting systems that are now in the process of being installed. It’s quite possible to presume that this particular accident, horrible as it was, has served to save an even greater number of equally innocent lives through safety measures and changes that it inspired.

As comforting as it might be to know this accident changed things for the better for the traveling public, it still doesn’t change the fact that those who remain and whose lives were painfully changed that day are still hurting.

No family is ever prepared for an unexpected snap of the reaper’s fingers. An amazing number of accident-related human interest stories, tragic, bizarre, and even (eventually) wonderful, emerged from this single accident. The operations agent at the tiny station of Palmdale, California—the intended destination of the SkyWest flight—was left with dealing with anxious families and military officials. Palmdale is home to some key military development facilities. She also had to deal with local and national press, and a litany of other inquiries, all the while knowing that her own husband was actually on the flight as he had just called her as he was boarding. Her boss, the SkyWest Palmdale station manager, was also on the flight. A special flight to bring her support and relief had to be painfully delayed for a last-second maintenance issue.

When early on, the investigators were exploring the possibility of asserting that Captain Lucas deserved some responsibility for what happened by erring in his situational awareness of sitting on a runway with an aircraft approaching from behind, I vigorously argued otherwise, submitting my notes of his recent checkride example on the self-same runway. I never fully appreciated the concept of bittersweet until that moment.

Aviation is replete with examples of advancements to procedure and design that were initialized by tragedy, a reality sometimes referred to by insiders as “tombstone engineering.” Those actions have contributed to building a mass transportation system that overall is remarkably safe and efficient.

The entire aviation world is safer today, in part, because of that terrible accident on Runway 24 Left. We all would like to think that something like that could never happen again, but alas, such hope would be folly. As this is written, the latest variant of arguably the most successful airliner in history, the Boeing 737 that both my son and I fly for a living, sits grounded after two recent tragic accidents. No doubt lessons will be learned from the subsequent investigations of those events and this will undoubtedly save lives and serve to make an incredibly safe system even safer.

It’s a safe bet that decades in the future we will undoubtedly know some things then that escape us today. The esteemed author Ernie Gann wrote that sometimes fate is the hunter.

Indeed.

We continue to make progress as best as we humanly can; however, sometimes the hunter just won’t be denied.Godspeed Andy and to all who perished on LAX Runway 24L that fateful day.