Pilot Error a Factor in Southwest Airlines Midway Airport Crash

December 16, 2005

After deciding it was safe to land in a snowstorm, the pilots of Southwest Airlines Flight 1248 overran the zone where the plane needed to touch down, losing hundreds of feet of runway that would have helped stop the jet before it skidded outside the airport and killed a 6-year-old boy, federal investigators said Thursday.

The Chicago Tribune account today said that the plane glided over the runway, wasting precious stopping distance, before the captain planted the landing-gear wheels more than 2,000 feet beyond the edge of the 6,522-foot runway. The National Transportation Safety Board’s report issued Thursday indicated that the pilots needed at least 800 more feet of runway to avoid a collision.

The Southwest airline crash took place on Dec. 8. The pilots and a Southwest dispatcher were confident a landing could be accomplished, despite low visibility, a tailwind chasing the plane and reports of poor braking power on snowy Runway 31 Center.

The pilots’ decision to land was based on the dispatcher’s positive view of the situaton, the experience level of the pilot and flight data they entered into a cockpit computer, investigators said. Weather updates indicated a freezing fog was setting in, but the computer confirmed the difficult landing would be within the capability of the Boeing 737-700 and would conform to Southwest’s procedures, according to the report.

The report said the 59-year-old captain, who was flying the plane, missed the landing zone.

Preliminary calculations, using radar information and the flight data recorder onboard the plane, show the aircraft touched down with about 4,500 feet of runway remaining; approximately 5,300 feet of stopping distance was needed under the slick conditions to avoid a collision, the report said.

Questions have arisen about whether it was legal for Southwest Flight 1248 to land in the heavy snow. Less than a half hour before the flight landed, visibility was listed as only “one-half mile-less than three quarters of a mile visibility according to the NTSA’s report. Making a landing with only a half-mile of visibility would violate FAA regulations. Approximately 23 minutes after the accident, “a special observation revealed” that visibility was only one-fourth mile, the safety board said.

An attorney for the Woods family said the safety board’s report provides grounds for a lawsuit against Southwest and the city of Chicago. Attorney Ronald A. Stearney Jr., said there shouldn’t have been a land and that the plane should have been diverted because of the snowstorm.

The plane carrying 98 passengers was slowed by rolling through a fence designed to absorb jet blasts, an airport perimeter fence and onto the street, where it hit two vehicles. Joshua Woods, 6, of Leroy, Ind., who was in one vehicle with his family en route to visit his grandmother in Chicago, was killed.

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