American Airlines Flight 191
Flight 191 moments before the crash.
|Date||May 25, 1979|
|Summary||Loss of control after engine detachment due to improper maintenance|
|Site||Des Plaines, Illinois, United States|
|Injuries (non-fatal)||5 (ground)|
|Fatalities||273 (including 2 on the ground)|
|Aircraft type||McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10|
|Flight origin||O'Hare International Airport|
|Destination||Los Angeles International Airport|
American Airlines Flight 191 was a regularly scheduled passenger flight from O'Hare International Airport in Chicago to Los Angeles International Airport. On May 25, 1979, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10 operating the flight crashed moments after takeoff from Chicago. All 258 passengers and 13 crew on board were killed, along with two people on the ground. It is the deadliest aviation accident to occur on U.S. soil.[note 1]
Investigators found that as the jet was beginning its takeoff rotation, engine number one on the left (port) wing separated and flipped over the top of the wing. As the engine separated from the aircraft, it severed hydraulic fluid lines and damaged the left wing, resulting in a retraction of the slats. As the jet attempted to climb, the left wing stalled while the right wing, with its slats still deployed, continued to produce lift. The jetliner subsequently rolled to the left and reached a bank angle of 112 degrees (partially inverted), before crashing in an open field by a trailer park near the end of the runway. The engine separation was attributed to damage to the pylon rigging structure holding the engine to the wing caused by faulty maintenance procedures at American Airlines.
While maintenance issues and not the actual design of the aircraft were ultimately found responsible for the crash, the accident and subsequent grounding of all DC-10s by the Federal Aviation Administration added to an already unfavorable reputation of the DC-10 aircraft in the eyes of the public caused by several other incidents and accidents involving the type. The investigation also revealed other DC-10s with damage caused by the same faulty maintenance procedure. The faulty procedure was banned, and the aircraft type went on to have a long passenger career. It has since found a second career as a cargo airplane.
The aircraft involved was a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10 registered N110AA. It had been delivered on February 25, 1972, and at the time of the crash had logged just under 20,000 hours of flight over seven years. The jet was powered by three General Electric CF6-6D engines. A review of the aircraft's flight logs and maintenance records showed that no mechanical discrepancies were noted for May 11, 1979. On the day of the accident, the records had not been removed from the aircraft, as was standard procedure, and were destroyed in the accident.
Captain Walter Lux, 53, had been flying the DC-10 since its introduction eight years earlier. He had around 22,000 hours logged, of which about 3,000 were in a DC-10. He was also qualified to pilot 17 other aircraft, including the DC-6, DC-7, and Boeing 727. First Officer James Dillard, 49, and Flight Engineer Alfred Udovich, 56, were also highly experienced: 9,275 hours and 15,000 hours respectively, and between them they had 1,830 hours flying experience in the DC-10.
The weather was clear, with a northeast wind at 22 knots (41 km/h). At 14:50 CDT, Flight 191 pushed back from gate K5 and was cleared to taxi to runway 32R. Maintenance crews present at the gate did not notice anything unusual during pushback, engine start, or taxi.
The flight began its takeoff roll at 15:02. Everything appeared normal until just after the plane reached takeoff speed, when the number one engine and its pylon assembly that attached it to the wing separated from the aircraft, ripping away a 3-foot (0.91 m) section of the leading edge of the left wing. Both the engine and pylon flipped over the top of the wing and landed on the runway.
As the airplane was already above takeoff speed, the flight crew continued the takeoff. The pilots were aware that the number one engine had failed, but could not have known it had completely broken off from the plane, as the wings and engines were not visible from the cockpit and the control tower did not inform the flight crew of the problem. Investigators subsequently concluded the flight crew thought engine one had merely failed.
In addition to the engine's failure, several related systems failed. The number one hydraulic system, powered by the number one engine, failed but continued to operate via motor pumps which mechanically connected it to hydraulic system three. Hydraulic system three was also damaged and began leaking fluid, but maintained pressure and operation up until impact. Hydraulic system two was undamaged. The number one electrical bus, whose generator was attached to the number one engine, failed causing several electrical systems to go offline, most notably the captain's instruments, his stick shaker, and the slat disagreement sensors. While a switch in the overhead panel would have allowed the captain to restore power to his instruments, it was not used. It may have been possible for the flight engineer to reach the backup power switch (as part of an abnormal situation checklist – not as part of their take-off emergency procedure), in an effort to restore electrical power to the number one electrical bus. That would have worked only if electrical faults were no longer present in that number one electrical system. Furthermore, the flight engineer would have needed to rotate his seat, release his safety belt and stand up, to reach the switch. Since the plane never got higher than 350 feet (110 m) above ground, and was airborne for no more than 50 seconds, there wasn't sufficient time to take such an action. In any event, the first officer was flying the airplane and his instruments continued to function normally.
Witnesses observed the aircraft continue to climb to about 300 feet (91 m) above ground level while spewing a white vapor trail of fuel and hydraulic fluid from the left wing. The first officer raised the nose up to 14 degrees to reduce the airspeed from 165 knots (306 km/h), to 153 knots (283 km/h), the speed specified in the emergency procedure for engine failure during takeoff. However, the engine separation had severed the hydraulic fluid lines that controlled the leading edge slats on the left wing, causing the outboard slats (towards the tip of the wing) to retract under air load. The retraction of the slats raised the stall speed of the left wing to approximately 159 knots (294 km/h), 6 knots (11 km/h) higher than the prescribed emergency speed. As a result, the left wing entered a full aerodynamic stall. The resulting asymmetric lift caused the plane to roll rapidly to the left and enter a steep dive from which it could not recover despite maximum opposite control inputs by the first officer. Out of control, the plane slammed into an open field at a 112-degree bank approximately 4,600 ft (1,400 m) from the end of the runway. Large sections of aircraft debris were hurled by the force of the impact into an adjacent trailer park, destroying five trailers and several cars. The DC-10 had also crashed into an old aircraft hangar at the former site of Ravenswood Airport that was used for storage located at the edge of the airport. The fuselage had cut a trench into the empty former airfield and the large amount of jet fuel generated a huge fireball. The plume of smoke could be seen from the downtown Chicago Loop, 17 miles (27 km) to the southeast. The aircraft had disintegrated in the crash and explosion. There were some post-crash fires but they were very small as there were no large pieces of the aircraft left intact to burn.
A fireman assisting at the scene of the crash later stated, "We didn't see one body intact, just trunks, hands, arms, heads, and parts of legs. And we can't tell whether they were male or female, or whether they were adult or child, because they were all charred." Another first responder on the scene stated, "It was too hot to touch anybody and I really couldn't tell if they were men or women. Bodies were scattered all over the field."
All 271 passengers and crew on board were killed instantly by the impact and subsequent explosion, making it the most devastating aviation accident in U.S history.[note 1] Two employees at a nearby repair garage were killed and two more severely burned. Of the 273 victims, only about a dozen bodies were found intact. Three additional residents were injured from falling aircraft debris. The airplane crashed in a field northwest of the intersection of Touhy Avenue (Illinois Route 72) and Mount Prospect Road on the border of Des Plaines and Mount Prospect, Illinois.
The National Transportation Safety Board was responsible for investigating the accident. The safety board was assigned to determine why the engine separated from the airplane and why the airplane was unable to remain airborne on its two remaining engines.
The loss of the engine by itself should not have been enough to cause the accident; Flight 191 should have been capable of returning to the airport using its remaining two engines. Unlike other aircraft designs, however, the DC-10 did not include a separate mechanism to lock the extended leading edge slats in place, relying instead solely on the hydraulic pressure within the system. In response to the accident, slat relief valves were mandated to prevent slat retraction in case of hydraulic line damage.
Wind tunnel and flight simulator tests were conducted to help to understand the trajectory of flight 191 after the engine detached and the left wing slats retracted. Those tests established that the damage to the wing's leading edge and retraction of the slats increased the stall speed of the left wing from 124 knots to 159 knots.
The DC-10 incorporates two warning devices which might have alerted the pilots to the impending stall: the slat disagreement warning light, which should have illuminated after the uncommanded retraction of the slats, and the stick shaker on the captain's control column, which activates close to the stall speed. Both of these warning devices were powered by an electric generator driven by the number one engine. Both systems became inoperative after the loss of that engine. The first officer's control column was not equipped with a stick shaker; the device was offered by McDonnell Douglas as an option for the first officer, but American Airlines chose not to have it installed on its DC-10 fleet. Stick shakers for both pilots became mandatory in response to this accident.
From an examination of the detached engine the NTSB concluded that the pylon attachment had separated as the result of damage incured before the crash. Investigators looked at the plane's maintenance history and found that its most recent service was eight weeks before the crash, in which the left wing engine had been removed from the aircraft. The pylon, the rigging holding the engine onto the wing, had been damaged during the procedure. The procedure recommended by McDonnell-Douglas called for the engine to be removed from the pylon before detaching the pylon itself, but American Airlines, along with Continental Airlines and United Airlines, had begun to use a procedure that saved approximately 200 man-hours per aircraft and "more importantly from a safety standpoint, it would reduce the number of disconnects (of systems such as hydraulic and fuel lines, electrical cables, and wiring) from 72 to 27." The new procedure involved mechanics removing the engine and pylon as a single unit. A large forklift was used to support the engine while it was being detached from the wing – a procedure that was found to be extremely difficult to execute successfully, due to difficulties with holding the engine assembly straight while it was being removed.
The field service representative from McDonnell-Douglas said the company would "not encourage this procedure due to the element of risk" and had so advised American Airlines. McDonnell-Douglas, however, "does not have the authority to either approve or disapprove the maintenance procedures of its customers."
The accident investigation also concluded that the design of the pylon and adjacent surfaces made the parts difficult to service and prone to damage by maintenance crews. The NTSB reported that there were two different approaches to the one-step procedure: using an overhead hoist or using a forklift. United Airlines used a hoist; American and Continental Airlines used a forklift. An examination of the DC-10 fleets of the three airlines showed that while United Airlines' hoist approach seemed to work, there were multiple DC-10s at both Continental and American with damage to their pylon mounts.
The forklift method had some issues. If the forklift was in the wrong position, as with the procedure used by American, the engine would rock like a see-saw and jam against the pylon attachment points. The forklift operator was guided by hand and voice signals; the positioning had to be perfect or damage could result. The maintenance on the aircraft that crashed did not go smoothly. Aircraft mechanics started to disconnect the engine and pylon, but there was a shift change halfway through. When work was resumed, the pylon was jammed on the wing and the forklift had to be repositioned.
Examination of the pylon attachment points on the engine after the crash revealed damage to the wing's pylon mounting bracket that matched the shape of the pylon's rear attachment fitting. This meant that the pylon attachment fitting had struck the pylon mounting bracket. This was important evidence because the only way the pylon fitting could strike the wing's mounting bracket in the observed manner was if the bolts holding the pylon to the wing were removed and if the engine was being supported by something other than the aircraft. Hence investigators were able to determine that the observed damage to the rear pylon mount existed before the crash, rather than being caused by it.
The damage was not enough to cause an immediate failure; a fatigue crack developed and got worse with each takeoff and landing over the eight weeks, until Flight 191, when the damaged rear pylon mount reached the breaking point and failed. Without this fitting in place, the engine, at full takeoff thrust, rotated upward on its still-attached forward pylon mount. The structure surrounding the forward pylon mount then overloaded and failed, and the engine broke off.
The disaster and investigation received widespread coverage in the media, assisted by new news gathering technologies. The impact on the public was increased by the dramatic effect of an amateur photo taken of the plane rolling which was published on the front page of the Chicago Tribune on the Sunday following the crash (the crash was on a Friday).
There were some early reports that a collision with a small plane had been the cause of the crash. This apparently was the result of the discovery of small aircraft parts among the wreckage at the crash site. National Transportation Safety Board vice-chairman Elwood T. Driver, in a press briefing, was photographed holding a broken bolt and nut, implying these parts were a cause of the accident. The small-plane parts were subsequently determined to have been on the ground at the time of the crash, at the former general aviation Ravenswood Airport, a facility which had been out of service for a few years. An owner there had been selling used aircraft parts from a remaining hangar building.
The crash of Flight 191 brought strong criticism from the media regarding the DC-10's safety and design. The DC-10 had been involved in two accidents related to the design of its cargo doors, American Airlines Flight 96 (1972) and Turkish Airlines Flight 981 (1974). The separation of engine one from its mount, the widespread publication of the dramatic images of the airplane missing its engine and about to crash, and a second photo of the fireball resulting from the impact, raised widespread concerns about the safety of the DC-10. The final blow to the airplane's reputation was dealt two weeks after the crash, when the aircraft was grounded by the FAA. Although the aircraft itself would later be exonerated, the damage in the public's eye was already done.
The findings of the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board were released on December 21, 1979:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the asymmetrical stall and the ensuing roll of the aircraft because of the uncommanded retraction of the left wing outboard leading edge slats and the loss of stall warning and slat disagreement indication systems resulting from maintenance-induced damage leading to the separation of the No. 1 engine and pylon assembly at a critical point during takeoff. The separation resulted from damage by improper maintenance procedures which led to failure of the pylon structure.
Contributing to the cause of the accident were the vulnerability of the design of the pylon attach points to maintenance damage; the vulnerability of the design of the leading edge slat system to the damage which produced asymmetry; deficiencies in Federal Aviation Administration surveillance and reporting systems which failed to detect and prevent the use of improper maintenance procedures; deficiencies in the practices and communications among the operators, the manufacturer, and the FAA which failed to determine and disseminate the particulars regarding previous maintenance damage incidents; and the intolerance of prescribed operational procedures to this unique emergency.
The NTSB determined that the damage to the left wing engine pylon had occurred during an earlier engine change at the American Airlines aircraft maintenance facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on March 29 and 30, 1979.
In response to this accident, American Airlines was fined $500,000 by the United States government for improper maintenance procedures.
On June 6, 1979, two weeks after the accident, the Federal Aviation Administration suspended the type certificate for the DC-10, thereby grounding all DC-10s under its jurisdiction. It also enacted a special air regulation banning the DC-10 from U.S. airspace, which prevented foreign DC-10s not under the jurisdiction of the FAA from flying within the country. This was done while the FAA investigated whether or not the airplane's engine mount and pylon design met relevant requirements. Once the FAA was satisfied that maintenance issues were primarily at fault and not the actual design of the aircraft, the type certificate was restored on July 13 and the special air regulation repealed. However, the type certificate was amended, stating that "...removal of the engine and pylon as a unit will immediately render the aircraft unairworthy."
The crash of another DC-10 in November 1979, Air New Zealand Flight 901, added to the DC-10's negative reputation. The crash of flight 901, an Antarctic sightseeing flight which hit a mountain, was caused by several human and environmental factors not related to the airworthiness of the DC-10, and the aircraft was later completely exonerated in that accident.
The 1989 crash of another DC-10, United Airlines Flight 232, restored some of the aircraft's reputation. Despite losing an engine and all flight controls and crash-landing in a huge fireball (which was caught on video by a local news crew), 185 people survived the accident. Experts praised the DC-10's sturdy construction as partly responsible for the high number of survivors.
Despite the initial safety concerns, the DC-10 continued to serve with passenger airlines until 2013. Newer, more fuel-efficient twin-engine airplanes and not safety concerns ultimately ended the passenger career of the DC-10. Many retired passenger DC-10s have since been converted to all-cargo use. DC-10 freighters, along with its derivative, the MD-11, form the backbone of the FedEx Express fleet. The DC-10s have been upgraded with the glass cockpit from the MD-11, thereby turning them into MD-10s.
Some notable victims in the crash of Flight 191 were:
- Itzhak Bentov, a biomedical inventor (the cardiac catheter), New Age author (Stalking the Wild Pendulum and A Cosmic Book) and kundalini researcher
- Sheila Charisse, the daughter-in-law of movie actress Cyd Charisse
- Leonard Stogel, music business manager/promoter/producer/executive for California Jam and California Jam II, Sweathog, The Cowsills, Sam the Sham, Tommy James & The Shondells, Redbone, Gentle Giant, and other musical groups
- Several people in relation with Playboy magazine:
- Several members of the American Booksellers Association who were on their way to their annual convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where they were to have a joint party organized by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner
- Victoria Haider, magazine editor for Playboy magazine (and sometimes editor of Harlan Ellison)
- Judith Wax and her husband, Sheldon Wax. Judith Wax frequently contributed to Playboy (Sheldon was its managing editor), notably the annual "Christmas cards" piece that "presented" short satirical poems to various public figures. In her 1979 book, Starting in the Middle, she had written about her fear of flying on page 191.
- Francis Gemme, president of Children's Press in Chicago.
- Robert Walton Vaughan, Professor of Chemical Engineering, California Institute of Technology, leading researcher in NMR and catalysis.
For 32 years there was no permanent memorial to the victims. Funding was obtained for a memorial in 2009, through a two-year effort by a group of schoolchildren from Decatur Classical School. The memorial, a 2-foot (0.6 m) concave wall with interlocking bricks displaying the names of the crash victims, was formally dedicated in a ceremony on October 15, 2011. The memorial is located in a park two miles east of the crash site.
A now-faded banner reading "In Remembrance of FLIGHT 191 May 25, 1979" is situated on a fence at the corner of West Touhy Avenue and South Mt. Prospect road, near the site of the crash.
In other media
The cable/satellite TV channel The National Geographic Channel produced a documentary on the crash, and an episode from Seconds from Disaster titled "Chicago Plane Crash" (also known as "Flight Engine Down") detailed the crash and included film of the investigation press conferences.
The television series Mayday profiled the crash in the episode "Catastrophe at O'Hare".
Following the crash and the media attention that was focused on the DC-10, American Airlines replaced all "DC-10 LuxuryLiner" titles on the fuselage with a more generic "American Airlines LuxuryLiner".
In the days following the crash, a man named Clarence Bean, Jr., claimed that his pregnant girlfriend, Diane Chorba, was on the flight, but Cook County medical examiners assigned the task of identifying the crash victims later disproved this. Bean was found guilty of her murder in 2001.
Chicago folk singer Steve Goodman wrote the song "Ballad of Flight 191 (They Know Everything About It)" in response to the crash and the subsequent investigation as the inaugural song for a series of topical songs which aired on National Public Radio in 1979.
Chicago post-hardcore punk band The Effigies wrote the song "Body Bag" about the crash. The lyrics included "Plane just left O'Hare / On time flight one-nine-one / Disaster in the air / Starboard engine's gone" (although it was the port engine that was actually lost).
- Accidents and incidents in aviation
- Air safety
- Other accidents caused by engine separation:
- "Aircraft accident report: American Airlines, Inc. DC-10-10, N110AA. Chicago O'Hare International Airport Chicago, Illinois, May 25, 1979" (PDF). Retrieved April 16, 2011.
- Taylor, Troy (2003). "Lingering Sprits of Flight 191". prairieghosts.com. Retrieved April 15, 2011.
- "Investigation: American Airlines 191". AirDisaster.com. Archived from the original on August 13, 2006. Retrieved July 26, 2006.
- "Special Report: American Airlines Flight 191". AirDisaster.com. Archived from the original on July 21, 2006. Retrieved July 27, 2006.
- Job, Macarthur (1996). Air Disaster – Volume 2. Weston Creek: Aerospace Publications. pp. 47–60. ISBN 1875671196.
- "Aviation Safety Network > Statistics > Worst accidents > 10 worst accidents in North America". aviation-safety.net. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
- "Chicago Plane Crash / Flight Engine Down". Seconds From Disaster. National Geographic Channel.
- FAA AD 80-03-03
- FAA Airworthiness Directive 80-03-10
- "Accident Photo: American 191". AirDisaster.Com. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
- "Tuskegee Airman Heads Chicago Air Crash Probe". JET 56 (13): 5. June 14, 1979. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
- "Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields: Illinois, Northern Chicago area". Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields. Retrieved April 15, 2011.
- Thornton, Paul (January 7, 2007). "A final flight into the history books". LA Times. Retrieved April 15, 2011.
- "ASN Aircraft accident McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10 N110AA". AviationSafety.net. May 11, 2007. Retrieved July 27, 2009.
- "Aircraft Accident: DC. 10 ZK-NZP Flight 901". New Zealand Disasters. Christchurch City Libraries. Archived from the original on July 08 2011. Retrieved July 13, 2011.
- "McDonnell Douglas' DC-10 makes its last passenger flight today". The Verge. Retrieved 6 December 2013.
- "Federal Express Fleet". Airfleets.net. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
- "MD-10 Program". Boeing. Archived from the original on May 10, 2011. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
- Wasinski, Natasha (October 18, 2011). "Victims of Flight 191 crash remembered at memorial dedication". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2013-08-14.
- Wax, Judith (1979). Starting in the Middle. New York: Henry Holt & Company. p. 129. ISBN 0-03-020296-5.
- "The Worst U.S. Air Crash". Time. June 4, 1979. Archived from the original on May 28, 2010. Retrieved April 23, 2010.
- "Vaughan Lecturer | Rocky Mountain Conference". Rockychem.com. 1979-05-25. Retrieved 2013-04-02.
- "Finally, a memorial for American Flight 191 victims". Daily Herald. Retrieved August 6, 2011.
- Delgado, Jennifer. "Memorial to victims of 1979 plane crash unveiled". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved October 15, 2011.
- "loc: 42.009722,-87.93 - Google Maps". Goo.gl. 1970-01-01. Retrieved 2013-10-26.
- The Crash of Flight 191 (DVD). The History Channel.
- Thornton, Paul (January 7, 2007). "A final flight into the history books". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
- Miller, Jennifer (August 30, 2001). "Jury: Bean guilty of 2nd-degree murder". Ludington (MI) Daily News. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
- Eals, Clay (2007). Steve Goodman: Facing the Music. Toronto: ECW. pp. 558–9. ISBN 978-1-55022-732-1.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to American Airlines Flight 191.|
- "Public Lessons Learned from Accidents – American Airlines Flight 191" (archive)
- PlaneCrashInfo.Com – American Airlines Flight 191
- Flight 191 Remembered (Fox Chicago website, archive)
- Pre-crash pictures from Airliners.net
- NTSB Probable Cause Report
- News reports at The Museum of Classic Chicago Television