American Airlines Flight 1420

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American Airlines Flight 1420
American Airlines Flight 1420.jpg
N215AA's final resting place, having overrun the runway and crashed into the runway landing lights.
Accident summary
Date 1 June 1999
Summary Runway overrun caused by pilot error in inclement weather
Site Little Rock National Airport
Little Rock, Arkansas, United States
Passengers 139
Crew 6
Injuries (non-fatal) 110
Fatalities 11
Survivors 134
Aircraft type McDonnell Douglas MD-82
Operator American Airlines
Registration N215AA
Flight origin Dallas/Fort Worth Int'l Airport
Destination Little Rock National Airport

American Airlines Flight 1420 was a flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Little Rock National Airport in the USA. On June 1, 1999, the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 (registration N215AA[1]) operating for Flight 1420 overran the runway upon landing in Little Rock and crashed. 11 of the 145 people aboard, the captain and ten passengers, were killed in the crash.

The crash[edit]

Simulation of weather conditions

The pilots of Flight 1420 were Captain Richard Buschmann, 48, and First Officer Michael Origel, 35.[2] Captain Buschmann was a very experienced chief pilot for American Airlines with 10,234 total flight hours, of which approximately half were accumulated flying the MD-80. First Officer Origel had been with the airline for less than a year. He had 4,292 hours of flying experience.[2]

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident report, they learned that the winds were changing direction and that a wind shear alert had sounded in the aircraft due to a thunderstorm nearby. Air traffic control originally told them to expect Runway 22L for landing, but after the wind direction changed rapidly, Captain Buschmann requested a change to Runway 4R.

As the aircraft approached Runway 4R, a severe thunderstorm arrived over the airport. The controller's last report, prior to the landing, stated that the winds were 330 degrees at 28 knots. That exceeded the MD-82's crosswind limit for landing in reduced visibility on a wet runway. With that information, plus two wind shear reports, the approach should have been abandoned at that point, but Captain Buschmann decided to continue his approach to Runway 4R.

During their rush to land as soon as possible, both pilots became overloaded with multiple necessary tasks. That led to errors and omissions, which proved to be the final links in the accident chain. Consequently they failed to arm the automatic ground spoiler system.

Simulation of the landing

The pilots also failed to arm the auto braking system. Both automatic deployment of the ground spoilers and automatic engagement of the brakes are essential to ensure the plane's ability to stop within the confines of a wet runway, especially one that is being subjected to strong and gusting winds.

After landing, First Officer Origel stated, "We're down. We're sliding." This was followed by the captain saying "Oh No!" Neither pilot observed that the spoilers did not deploy, so there was no attempt to activate them manually. The result was almost no braking at all, since only about 15 percent of the airplane's weight was supported by the main landing gear.[3]

Directional control was lost when Captain Buschmann applied too much reverse thrust, in contradiction to the limits stated in the flight manual.

The aircraft skidded off the far end of the runway at high speed, slammed into a steel walkway attached to the landing lights for runway 22L and finally came to a stop on the banks of the Arkansas River.

"After departing the end of the runway, the airplane struck several tubes extending outward from the left edge of the instrument landing system (ILS) localizer array, located 411 feet beyond the end of the runway; passed through a chain link security fence and over a rock embankment to a flood plain, located approximately 15 feet below the runway elevation; and collided with the structure supporting the runway 22L approach lighting system." [3]

Such structures are usually frangible - i.e. designed to shear off on impact - but because the approach lights were located on the unstable river bank, they were firmly anchored and the impact destroyed the aircraft, which broke into three pieces and caught fire.

Captain Buschmann was killed instantly when the cockpit impacted the steel walkway, while first officer Origel received serious injuries. Ten of the 139 passengers also died.[3] Fourteen-year-old Rachel Fuller, a passenger who sustained severe burns, died two weeks later on June 16, following the amputation of her leg.[4]

Of the cabin crew:[3]

  • 3 received serious injuries
  • 1 received minor injuries

Of the surviving passengers:[3]

  • 41 received serious injuries
  • 64 received minor injuries
  • 24 were uninjured

After the accident American Airlines revised its checklist so that pilots would confirm that the spoilers are armed.[5]

Seat chart for American Airlines Flight 1420 created by the NTSB, revealing the location of passengers and lack of injury, severity of injuries, and deaths

Pilot behavior regarding thunderstorms[edit]

Experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created a study recording behavior of pilots landing at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport; the researchers checked to see whether pilots land in thunderstorms. Within a total of 2000 thunderstorm encounters, two out of three pilots landed in a thunderstorm. The study states that pilots exhibited more recklessness when they fell behind schedule, if they landed during the night, and if aircraft in front of them also landed in bad weather. Greg Feith, the lead NTSB investigator, said he felt surprised that pilots exhibited this behavior. The MIT study illustrated the industry-wide trends that factored into the Flight 1420 crash. Feith added that the pilots may have exhibited "get there-itis" as the pilots knew that they were approaching their 14-hour duty limits.[5][6]

Legal issues[edit]

Multiple lawsuits were filed after the crash and on December 15, 1999, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated the various federal lawsuits over the crash for consolidated and coordinated pretrial proceedings and assigned the case to the late United States District Court Senior Judge Henry Woods of the Eastern District of Arkansas. In the lawsuits the passengers sought compensatory and punitive damages from American Airlines.

From the beginning Judge Woods separated the passenger cases into two groups: domestic and international passengers, because different laws governed the rights of the claimants in each category. For example, passengers traveling on international tickets were prohibited by an international treaty (the Warsaw Convention) from recovering punitive damages. Therefore, Judge Woods ruled only the domestic passengers would be permitted to pursue punitive damages claims.[7]

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled the probable cause of the crash was: "The flight crew's failure to discontinue the approach when severe thunderstorms and their associated hazards to flight operations had moved into the airport area and the crew's failure to ensure that the spoilers had extended after touchdown. Contributing to the accident were the flight crew's (1) impaired performance resulting from fatigue and the situational stress associated with the intent to land under the circumstances, (2) continuation of the approach to a landing when the company's maximum crosswind component was exceeded, and (3) use of reverse thrust greater than 1.3 engine pressure ratio after landing."[8]

The compensatory damages claims proceeded first. American Airlines "admitted liability for the crash and individual trials were scheduled to assess the proper amount of compensatory damages. Thereafter American Airlines reached settlement agreements with a majority of the domestic Plaintiffs."[9]

"Three compensatory damages trials involving domestic Plaintiffs were ultimately tried to a jury and awards of $ 5.7 million, $ 3.4 million and $ 4.2 million were made."[9] These three Plaintiffs pursued but ultimately lost their claims for punitive damages. The District Court granted summary judgment in American Airlines' favor on punitive damages, finding under Arkansas law the evidence was insufficient to submit the issue to a jury to decide.[10] This ruling was later upheld on appeal.[11]

In upholding summary judgment for American Airlines on punitive damages the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit explained:[12]

We agree with the district court that the only conduct that might support an award of punitive damages was that of Captain Buschmann and First Officer Origel in the last sixteen minutes of the flight, that is, their conduct beginning with the decision to continue the approach into Little Rock after the air traffic controller there confirmed that a thunderstorm had hit the airport. Before then, the flight crew, having notice of the possible inclement weather in Little Rock, took an uncontroversial "wait-and-see" attitude to landing, having the ability at any time to divert the aircraft's course to Nashville or another alternate location. The decision to take off, and the conduct during the flight up to this time, cannot reasonably be deemed negligent, let alone sufficiently reckless to justify a punitive damages award.

The parties dispute whether the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could find that the disposition or mental state of one or both members of the flight crew had a degree of willfulness, wantonness, or conscious indifference to the risk that the crew would crash the aircraft due to the inclement weather sufficient to allow an inference of malice. American Airlines contends that, because the crash would not have occurred had the spoilers been activated, the proper inquiry is whether the failure to deploy the spoilers was itself the product of the type of mental state justifying punitive damages. The PSC,[13] however, contends that this inquiry is too narrow, and that the decision to proceed with the landing in inclement weather was itself a proximate cause of the crash because the events leading up to the crash were cumulative in nature. According to the PSC's theory, a reasonable jury could find that the flight crew neglected to deploy the spoilers because they became distracted and had too much to do as a result of their egregious decision to land the aircraft in the inclement weather.

The evidence provides no clear explanation for why the flight crew failed to deploy the spoilers. We agree with the PSC, though, that a reasonable jury could find that the flight crew's decision to land the plane during conditions of high winds and low visibility led to a situation in which they were distracted from deploying the spoilers. "Causation is ordinarily a fact question for the jury to decide," Arthur v. Zearley, 337 Ark. 125, 135, 992 S.W.2d 67, 73 (1999), and a reasonable jury could find that the proximate cause of the failure to deploy the spoilers (and thus the [**17] crash) was the decision to land the plane during bad weather. Thus, the punitive damages claim should be submitted to a jury if there is evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the flight crew's decision to land the aircraft satisfied the requirements for awarding punitive damages. Our reading of the record leads us to conclude that it will not support that conclusion.

In the only liability trial arising out of the crash of flight 1420, a federal jury in Little Rock awarded Captain Buschmann's family $2 million in wrongful death damages in a lawsuit they filed against the Little Rock National Airport.[14] The jury decided Captain Buschmann's death occurred because the aircraft collided with illegal non-frangible approach light supports erected in what should have been the Runway Safety Area. It was concluded that Little Rock National Airport failed to comply with airport safety standards. The Captain's estate presented evidence the spoilers were deployed and malfunctioned (not the captain's fault), and that the aircraft was not in turbulence.[15] The jury rejected the airport's argument that Captain Buschmann was at fault in causing his own death.[14]

It has been stated the jury verdict completely absolved Captain Buschmann of all fault for the crash.[15] However, 1) the National Transportation Safety Board has not changed its probable cause ruling and 2) American Airlines admitted liability for the crash and "paid many millions of dollars in damages to the passengers and their families."[14]

According to a comment made about 10 years after the crash by David Rapoport, a lawyer who was a member of the PSC,[13] "after all these years [whether Captain Buschmann was "absolved" of all responsibility for the crash] is still a matter reasonable people who are fully informed may disagree on", however, there should be consensus "flight operations should not be conducted in the terminal area when thunderstorms are on the flight path; and non-frangible objects should not be placed where it is foreseeable an aircraft may go."[14]


The story of the disaster was featured on the second episode of the Canadian Cineflix show Mayday (known as Air Emergency in the US, Mayday in Ireland & Canada and Air Crash Investigation in the UK and the rest of world) entitled "Racing the Storm" or "Fatal Landing". The Weather Channel also detailed the story of the flight on an episode of Storm Stories, as did bio. on the show Flightmares.


A 2004 memorial ceremony was held adjacent to the airport. Jeana Varnell, one of the survivors, attended the ceremony and in a newspaper article, strongly objected to the memorializing of Captain Buschmann.[16]

Coincidentally, the Airbus A330 crash of Air France Flight 447 occurred on the 10th anniversary of this crash.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "FAA Registry". Federal Aviation Administration. 
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ a b c d e National Transportation Safety Board (2001). "Aircraft Accident Report: Runway Overrun During Landing; American Airlines Flight 1420; McDonnell Douglas MD-82, N215AA; Little Rock, Arkansas; 1 June 1999". Retrieved 23 December 2005.
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b "Racing the Storm" ("Fatal Landing") Mayday.
  6. ^ Rhoda, D.A.; Pawlak, M.L. "An Assessment of Thunderstorm Penetrations and Deviations by Commercial Aircraft in the Terminal Area" (PDF). 
  7. ^ In re Air Crash at Little Rock, Arkansas, on June 1, 1999, 109 F. Supp. 2d 1022, 1024 (E.D. Ark. 2000).
  8. ^[dead link]
  9. ^ a b In re Aircraft Accident, 231 F. Supp. 2d 852, 855-857 (E.D. Ark. 2002).
  10. ^ In re Aircraft Accident, 231 F. Supp. 2d 852 (E.D. Ark. 2002).
  11. ^ Rustenhaven v. Am. Airlines Inc. (In re Aircraft Accident at Little Rock), 351 F.3d 874, 880-881 (8th Cir. 2003).
  12. ^ Rustenhaven v. Am. Airlines Inc. (In re Aircraft Accident at Little Rock), 351 F.3d 874, 880-881 (8th Cir. Ark. 2003).
  13. ^ a b Court-appointed Plaintiffs' Steering Committee in consolidated litigation arising out of the crash
  14. ^ a b c d "Over $14 Million for Victims of American Airlines Little Rock Airplane Crash". Rapoport Law Offices, P.C. 2011-02-04. Retrieved 2011-09-15. A jury found the airport was liable and awarded the captain's family $2m in wrongful death damages ... the jury found the captain was not at fault in causing his own death ... the passenger injury and wrongful death cases were based on pilot error and the airline admitted liability in all these cases ... the NTSB has not revised its probable cause finding that focused completely on pilot error 
  15. ^ a b Archived May 19, 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 34°44.18′N 92°11.97′W / 34.73633°N 92.19950°W / 34.73633; -92.19950