If you haven’t heard about the near disaster that was the accident involving American Flight 300 taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City on April 10th, just a week ago as I write, you can be forgiven. It has not been widely reported upon.
And after all, why should it be? No one was injured, the damage to the plane is repairable, and the controllers in the tower at JFK weren’t even aware an accident had taken place until a half hour after it happened.
But how about this for a headline: “Airbus Hits Wing on Takeoff, Flies for 20 Minutes With Runway Sign Embedded In Its Wingtip?” Because that’s apparently what happened.
This is the blow-by-blow account. The Airbus A321, outfitted with luxury seating, departed from Kennedy for LAX on April 10 carrying 102 passengers and eight crewmembers. As the plane was rotating on takeoff, its left wing suddenly dropped and struck a runway distance marker sign with its wing leading edge and wingtip, taking out the sign which wound up embedded in the wingtip.
The pilots, apparently unaware that their plane had taken out a sign, corrected the bank, took off and flew on as though nothing had happened. They went through a half dozen handoffs (when one ATC facility passes your flight info along to the next one down the line) until, almost a half hour later, its pilots requested a return to JFK. Now, when the crew of an Airbus that’s been flying for a half hour wants to return to the departure airport, ATC will ask why.
And the answer the crew gave was this. “We had a strong roll to the left as we were climbing and we have decided we’d like to return to Kennedy.”
When asked if they wanted assistance, code for rolling the emergency trucks, the pilots said, no thanks. It’s understandable that, having realized late in the game that they might have hit something with the plane’s wingtip, they wanted to keep a low profile. But if that was the thinking, it’s not okay.
When the plane got back to JFK and landed uneventfully, thank goodness, the damage was plain to see. And parts of that runway–remaining distance sign were still stuck in the wingtip.
If this sounds scary, we agree.
Here are five things that are concerning about this accident (yes, in the eyes of the NTSB by law it’s officially an accident).
1. What the hell happened to the plane! When an airplane takes off immediately before another plane, especially when its’ a large plane, it can leave a wake that can upset airplanes taking off after it. This is called “wake turbulence,” and controllers are very much aware of it and have required procedures for combatting it. Was it the cause? It doesn’t sound likely. The departing flight wasn’t given a “Caution, wake turbulence” warning, and when queried about that possibility by ATC after they requested a return, the pilot said that, no, it wasn’t a case of wake turbulence, though a pilot might not know. The roll, which the captain referred to as “uncommanded,” meaning neither one of the pilots banked the airplane manually, nor did they have a roll entered into the flight computer—why would they on takeoff? In other words, it happened without them commanding it. But there had to have been a reason. And in a fly-by-wire airplane like the A321, one of those reasons could be an automation issue. The NTSB is investigating what happened and why.
2. Why did it take so long for the crew to turn that plane around? It was 28 minutes and change before the captain requested a return to JFK. The plane by then, he said, was flying fine, nothing wrong with it. But why ask to go back to Kennedy at all then? Our guess is that it’s because he worried that something could be very wrong with the plane. Taking off was the right thing to do from best practices safety standpoint. But the very next move should have been a call to tower asking to come back around and land the Airbus. Might the crew have needed to burn fuel before landing again? Probably. They were fueled for a non-stop to LA. But burning that fuel off should have been done within gliding distance to JFK, preferably in a racetrack pattern right above the airport.
3. What was the rest of the crew doing? In most swept wing jets, the pilots can’t see the wingtips from where they’re sitting. So it’s understandable that they might not have known that they hit something. The same can’t be said for the flight attendants or the passengers. Reports are that the passengers were fully aware, and terrified, by what had just happened. Surely the cabin crew was aware of it, too, or the passengers made them aware of it. Why didn’t a flight attendant get on the horn right away and tell the captain, “Hey, we just hit something!”
4. Why not ask for emergency responders? The crew said they didn’t know what had happened. It had happened not in cruise but on departure, with the airplane dirtied up and flying at a high angle of attack. That is very much the configuration of the plane on landing, too. The pilots said that they had no idea what had happened. So why didn’t they need the emergency personnel to respond?
5. Why did the pilots communicate as they did?The ATC radio transmissions can be found here. On them the pilots make no mention of hitting anything—again, they might not have known—they say that the plane has no mechanical issues, when indeed a potential mechanical issue is expressly why they chose to return to JFK.
The NTSB is investigating the accident. Until we hear back from their investigators, what happened to American Flight 300, why it happened and why the crew responded as they did will remain mysteries to which we need answers.