Tennessee Aviation Attorney Keith Williams on Southwest Flight 345 Accident

Southwest Flight 345, which was involved in a landing accident at New York – La Guardia Airport, NY (LGA), is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). In the last 10 years, I have represented many victims and families of victims of aircraft accidents and disasters and I have followed the Flight 345 accident with interest due to my aviation law background.  The time period between the actual event and the release of the NTSB report is always suspenseful as that report will make clear what event, or chain of events, actually happened to cause the incident.  In the Flight 345 hard landing accident, initial reports are pointing towards pilot error.  Southwest Airlines has already released a statement saying the landing described by the NTSB was “not in accordance” with operating procedures.  Southwest’s fleet is made up entirely of Boeing 737 airplanes and they obviously do not want there to be any further questioning of their reliability and safety. And, while Boeing 737s have a good safety record, there have been 20 nose gear collapse incidents in the past 17 years although the records do not state if they were equipment failure or pilot error.  You may remember in the mid-80s to early 90s, there were several reports of Boeing aircraft suffering “fuselage fatigue”, which is a nice way of saying parts of the fuselage developed a terrifying habit of peeling off during flight.  The airlines was fined millions of dollars during this era and eventually got all of the airplanes refurbished and the problem seems to have been addressed and solved.  As far as nose gear collapse, several directives have been issued regarding maintenance and inspection of the nose gear to prevent this from happening, although no major recalls or refurbishment efforts have been undertaken.

The report the NTSB has released contains “factual information” from the July 22, 2013 accident that involved a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700. This is basically information that they know to be true, irrespective of the final NTSB report on Flight 345’s hard landing. The aircraft’s front landing gear collapsed upon landing while having 145 passengers and 5 crew members on board. 16 of the passengers and crew suffered what were called “minor injuries”, 7 of those were treated on the scene and 9 were transported to a local hospital.  Passengers and crew evacuated the plane by the emergency chutes.

La Guardia Airport video along with other sources indicates that the nose gear (front) made contact with the runway before the main (rear) landing gear.  The NTSB factual report also indicated that 56 seconds before the aircraft touched down, the pilots adjusted the flaps from 30 to 40 degrees.

At the time of touchdown the approximate airspeed was 133 knots and 4 seconds prior to touchdown the altitude was about 32 feet with an airspeed of 134 knots.  The pitch attitude of the aircraft at approximately 4 seconds before touchdown was 2 degrees nose up while at the time of touchdown the pitch attitude was 3 degrees nose down.

Under a normal landing in a big jet, the main landing gear under each wing would touch the runway first and simultaneously — absorbing the main stress of landing — and the nose gear then lowered gradually as the plane decelerates down the runway.

According to Boeing’s figures, a 737-700 jet is expected to cross the runway threshold at about 140 knots or 161 mph.

After the hard landing which collapsed the nose gear, the aircraft came to a stop approximately 19 seconds subsequent to the touchdown after sliding 2,175 feet on its nose along Runway 4 before coming to rest off to the right side of the runway.

The flight data recorder (FDR) contains 27 hours of recorded data including the entire flight from Nashville to New York.  The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) contains two hours of the cockpit conversations including the entire flight from Nashville to New York including the sequence of the events of the landing.

As an aviation attorney, all of the above “factual” information interests me as it will all be taken into consideration should any passenger bring a suit against Southwest and/or Boeing for injuries or damages suffered during this incident.  The particular piece of information that interests me the most, however, is this statement we discussed earlier, “Officials of Southwest Airlines said in a prepared statement that the landing scenario the NTSB describes from video and other sources “was not in accordance with our operating procedures.”

Word that the landing was unusual could remove suspicion of a mechanical failure being the cause of the Southwest Air Flight 345 accident.  A fear of a mechanical failure of the nose gear of a Boeing 737 could have major implications for commercial aviation worldwide because the 737 is the most widely used commercial jet in the world. Stock price in Boeing took a hit after the incident until the “factual” report above was released, then stockholders seemed soothed by the thought of it being pilot error.  I, on the other hand, don’t find pilot error soothing at all!

Airplanes are a vital part of our lives.  We jump on one and head to an exotic vacation, business trip, or to visit loved ones. However, we rely on several factors to make our trip safe and these are factors over which we have no control – manufacturing quality, maintenance quality, pilot experience and expertise, and other unknown quantities such as weather.  While we can’t influence the weather, we can hold the manufacturers, operators, maintenance companies and pilots to a high degree of quality in order to ensure that incidents do not become disasters and, preferably, incidents do not happen in the first place.