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 June 1, 1999
Summary Runway excursion in inclement weather due to pilot error[1]:xii
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 (DFW) to Little Rock National Airport in the United States. On June 1, 1999, the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 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.


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

The aircraft involved in the incident was a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 (registration N215AA[2]), a derivative of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 and part of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series of aircraft.[1]:12 It was delivered new to American Airlines in 1983, and had been operated continuously by the airline since, accumulating a total of 49,136 flight hours.[1]:12 The aircraft was equipped with Pratt & Whitney JT8D-217C turbofan jet engines.[1]:12

The aircraft was equipped with X band weather radar, which is susceptible to attenuation during heavy precipitation, and did not have an attenuation alert to warn the flight crew of system impairment during heavy rainfall.[1]:13 The radar weather system had a forward-looking design which offered the flight crew only a limited field of view in front of the aircraft.[1]:116

Flight crew[edit]

Flight 1420 was helmed by Captain Richard Buschmann, age 48. 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 series of aircraft.[1]:10 Buschmann graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1972, serving in the Air Force until 1979. Buschmann held the rank of Lieutenant colonel with the US Air Force Reserve Command, and was hired by American Airlines in July 1979. Experienced at flying the Boeing 727 for American, he transitioned to flying the twin-engined McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series in 1991.[3]

The flight's First Officer was Michael Origel, age 35.[1]:10 The first officer had been with the airline for less than a year, and only had 182 hours of flight time with American Airlines as an MD-80 pilot.[1]:11 However, the first officer had trained as a pilot with the United States Navy and had prior commercial flight experience as a corporate pilot, with a total of 4,292 hours of flying experience at the time of the incident.[1]:11

Flight 1420 was staffed with four flight attendants, all of which were qualified on the MD-80 and had recently received refresher training on emergency procedures.[1]:11

Flight and weather conditions[edit]

Simulation of weather conditions

Flight 1420 was scheduled to depart DFW at 20:28 Central Daylight Time and arrive in Little Rock at 21:41.[1]:1 However, the flight crew were advised before boarding Flight 1420 that their departure would be delayed, and that the National Weather Service had issued in-flight weather advisories indicating severe thunderstorms along Flight 1420's planned flight path.[1]:2 Adverse weather caused the plane that was intended for Flight 1420 to be delayed in arriving at DFW.[1]:2 Airline policy set a maximum pilot duty time of 14 hours, and Flight 1420 was the flight crew's last flight of the day. The first officer notified the airline's flight dispatcher that the flight crew would exceed their duty limit and be unable to depart if Flight 1420 did not depart by 23:16.[1]:2 The airline substituted another MD-80, tail number N215AA, which allowed Flight 1420 to depart DFW at 22:40.[1]:2

At 23:04, air traffic controllers issued a weather advisory indicating severe thunderstorms in an area that included the Little Rock airport.[1]:2 In the event that Flight 1420 was unable to land for any reason, Nashville International Airport was designated as an alternate airport, and the flight also had the option of turning back and landing at DFW.[1]:2 The flight crew witnessed lightning produced by the storm while on approach Little Rock.[1]:3 However, the flight crew discussed the weather reports and decided to expedite their approach.[1]:2–3

Air traffic control at Little Rock originally told Flight 1420 to expect an approach to runway 22L. However, at 22:39, a controller advised Flight 1420 of a windshear alert and a change in wind direction.[1]:3 As a result, Captain Buschmann requested a change to runway 4R so that the flight would have a headwind during landing, and Flight 1420 was cleared for a visual approach to runway 4R.[1]:4 Because they were already close to the airport, the controller had to direct Flight 1420 away from airport in order to line them up for a landing on runway 4R.[1]:116 This resulted in Flight 1420 facing away from the airport for several minutes, and because the plane's weather radar had a narrow and forward-facing field of view, the flight crew could not see thunderstorms approaching the airport during their turn.[1]:116 As the aircraft approached runway 4R, a severe thunderstorm arrived over the airport, and at 23:44 the first officer notified the controller that they had lost sight of the runway.[1]:4 The controller then cleared Flight 1420 to land on runway 4R using an instrument landing system (ILS) approach.[1]:4

The pilots rushed to land as soon as possible, leading to errors in judgment that included the crew's failure to complete the airline's pre-landing checklist before landing.[1]:122 This was a crucial event in the accident chain, as the crew overlooked multiple critical landing systems on the checklist. The flight crew failed to arm the automatic spoiler system, which automatically moves the spoiler control lever and deploys the spoilers upon landing.[1]:15–16 The pilots also failed to set the plane's automatic braking system.[1]:21 Autospoilers and autobrakes 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. The flight crew also failed to set landing flaps, another item on the pre-flight checklist, but as the plane descended past 1,000 feet (300 m), the first officer realized the flaps were not set and the flight crew set a 40-degree flap setting for landing.[1]:123

At 23:49:32, the controller issued its last weather report before Flight 1420 landed, advising that winds at the airport were 330 degrees at 25 knots.[1]:6 The reported winds exceeded the MD-82's 20-knot crosswind limit for landing in reduced visibility on a wet runway.[1]:3 Despite the excessive crosswind and two wind shear reports, Captain Buschmann did not abandon the aircraft's approach into Little Rock, instead deciding to continue the approach to runway 4R.

The crash[edit]

Simulation of the landing

The aircraft touched down on runway 4R at 23:50:20. About two seconds after the wheels touched down, First Officer Origel stated, "We're down. We're sliding." Because the pilots failed to arm the autospoiler, the spoilers did not deploy automatically on landing, and the flight crew did not manually deploy them.[1]:167 Spoilers disrupt the airflow over the wing and prevent it from generating lift. That causes the plane's weight to be borne by the landing gear. About 65 percent of Flight 1420's weight would have been supported by the plane's landing gear if the spoilers are deployed, but without the spoilers this number dropped to only 15 percent.[1]:134 With the light loading of the landing gear, the aircraft's brakes were ineffective at slowing down the plane, which continued down the runway at high speed.[1]:134–135 Directional control was lost when Captain Buschmann applied too much reverse thrust, which reduced the effectiveness of the plane's rudder and vertical stabilizer.[1]:135–136

The aircraft continued past the end of the runway, traveling another 800 feet and striking a security fence and an ILS localizer array. The aircraft then collided with a structure built to support the landing lights for runway 22L, which extended out into the Arkansas River.[1]:43 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.[1]:159 The collision with the nonfrangible structure crushed the airplane's nose and destroyed the left side of the plane's fuselage, from the cockpit back to the first two rows of coach seating.[1]:159 The impact broke the aircraft apart into multiple large sections, which came to a rest short of the river bank.[1]:43

Captain Buschmann and ten of the plane's 139 passengers died in the crash. This included two passengers who initially survived the crash but died in the weeks that followed.[1]:47[4] The first officer, three of the four flight attendants, and 41 passengers sustained serious injuries.[1]:47


The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the crash.

Automatic spoiler and brake systems[edit]

The NTSB conducted extensive testing in order to determine whether the automatic spoiler and brake systems had been armed by the pilots prior to landing.

The flight's cockpit voice recorder (CVR) was reviewed, and sounds that were consistent with the spoiler arming or automatically deploying were not recorded by the CVR.[1]:42 The NTSB conducted two test flights of American Airlines MD-80 aircraft, which confirmed that arming the spoiler created an audible "click" that could be clearly heard on CVR playback.[1]:42 The NTSB also conducted ground tests on similar aircraft, including another American Airlines MD-80 that overran the runway (but was not destroyed) after its autospoiler system failed to deploy during a landing in Palm Springs, California.[1]:55 The NTSB also found that the sounds made by manual deployment of the spoiler were distinguishable from the sounds made by automatic deployment of the spoiler system.[1]:58–59 No sounds consistent with arming or auto-deployment of the spoiler system were recorded on Flight 1420's CVR.[1]:42

After Flight 1420 and the Palm Springs incident, American Airlines revised its checklist so that pilots would confirm that the spoilers are armed for auto-deployment before landing, confirm spoiler deployment, and deploy spoilers manually if they failed to automatically deploy.[1]:87[5]

Pilot behavior regarding thunderstorms[edit]

The NTSB investigation also focused on pilot behavior in inclement weather, to determine what impact the storms had on the pilots' decision-making process while approaching the Little Rock airport.

Experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created a study recording behavior of pilots landing at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport,[1]:142 which aimed to see whether pilots were willing to land in thunderstorms. Within a total of 1,952 thunderstorm encounters, 1,310 pilots (67 percent) flew into thunderstorms during landing attempts.[1]:142 The study found that pilots exhibited more recklessness if they fell behind schedule, if they were attempting to land at night, and if aircraft in front of them successfully landed in bad weather. In a later interview, Greg Feith, the lead NTSB investigator, said he was surprised to learn that pilots exhibited this behavior.[5] 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 issued its determination on the cause of the crash:[1]:169–170

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable causes of this accident were 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.

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."[8]

"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."[8] 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.[8] This ruling was later upheld on appeal.[9]

In upholding summary judgment for American Airlines on punitive damages, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit explained:[9]

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 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 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.[excessive quote]

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.[10] 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.[11] The jury rejected the airport's argument that Captain Buschmann was at fault in causing his own death.[10]

It has been stated the jury verdict completely absolved Captain Buschmann of all fault for the crash.[11] 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."[10]

According to a comment made about 10 years after the crash by David Rapoport, a lawyer who was a member of the PSC,[12] "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."[10]


The Discovery Channel Canada/National Geographic TV series Mayday (also called Air Crash Investigation or Air Emergency) dramatized the accident in an episode titled Racing the Storm (broadcast as Fatal Landing in some countries).[5] 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.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay Aircraft Accident Report - Runway Overrun During Landing, American Airlines Flight 1420, McDonnell Douglas MD-82, N215AA, Little Rock, Arkansas, June 1, 1999 (PDF). National Transportation Safety Board. March 24, 1999. Retrieved January 12, 2016. 
  2. ^ "FAA Registry". Federal Aviation Administration. 
  3. ^ "Recent Losses". Allied Pilots Association. Retrieved September 6, 2016. 
  4. ^ Harter, Andrea (April 11, 2001). "Flight 1420 plaintiff sobbingly testifies about her distress". Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Retrieved March 10, 2016. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Racing the Storm". Mayday. Season 1. 2003. 
  6. ^ Rhoda, D.A.; Pawlak, M.L. (June 3, 1999). "An Assessment of Thunderstorm Penetrations and Deviations by Commercial Aircraft in the Terminal Area" (PDF). MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Retrieved March 10, 2016. 
  7. ^ In Re Air Crash at Little Rock, Ark., on June 1, 1999, 109 F.Supp.2d 1022, 1024 (E.D.Ark. 2000).
  8. ^ a b c In re Aircraft Accident at Little Rock, Arkansas, 231 F.Supp.2d 852, 855-57 (E.D.Ark. 2002).
  9. ^ a b In re Aircraft Accident at Little Rock, Arkansas on June 1, 1999, 351 F.3d 874, 880-881 (8th Cir. 2003).
  10. ^ a b c d "Over $14 Million for Victims of American Airlines Little Rock Airplane Crash". Rapoport Law Offices, P.C. February 4, 2011. Retrieved September 15, 2011. 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 
  11. ^ a b Archived May 19, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  12. ^ Court-appointed Plaintiffs' Steering Committee in consolidated litigation arising out of the crash
  13. ^ Harter, Andrea (June 2, 2004). "'Forever linked' through Flight 1420". Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Retrieved March 10, 2016. 

External links[edit]

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