Accounts of airplane “saves,” especially when veteran captains overcome the errors of less-experienced crew members, are mostly anecdotal. Their quick actions avert the crashes or injuries that would otherwise trigger public investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board, which determines what causes a crash and recommends safety measures, or the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates aviation.
Instead, such incidents as the TWA-Bonanza midair near-collision described at left are typically reported by flight crews — anonymously — to an obscure program within NASA called the Air Safety Reporting System.
The stories of disasters averted are not gladly volunteered by airlines, which want to project flying as being safer than Series E Savings Bonds, or by pilots, who abhor ratting on colleagues even while acknowledging that they sometimes cause near-disasters.
But examples gathered by The Public i illustrate how valuable these old-timers can be in the cockpit.
345 lives saved
Fourteen years after the TWA-Bonanza close call — and half a world away — a captain who was just four weeks from turning 60 skillfully glided a United 747 back to safety in Honolulu after a cargo door and a big chunk of fuselage blew off.
Nine passengers, together with luggage, were sucked into the jumbo jets two right engines, drastically dropping the forward thrust that keeps the aircraft aloft. Because of the fatalities, the 1989 incident received considerable news coverage.
The NTSB later acknowledged Capt. David Cronins enormous skill in piloting the crippled aircraft to safety, citing his 38 years of experience. Left as a historic footnote, however, was that Cronin also prevented his less-experienced co-pilot, who was going by the book, from dropping the landing gear and flaps, which would have caused so much drag that the jet would have crash-landed in the Pacific.
A friend of Cronin, retired Capt. Hal “Mac” McNicol Jr., runs a Los Angeles agency placing hundreds of over-60 pilots into jobs on foreign airlines and domestic air taxis and air charters, which they are still allowed to fly. McNicol said that after the door ripped off and the jet lost power, the co-pilot read out the list of procedures recommended for an emergency descent. When the co-pilot said he was going to bring the landing gear down and extend the flaps, Cronin reacted immediately, according to McNicol.
“Hold on, Cronin told the co-pilot. “We dont know if we can make it or not, and if we gear down, well cause drag, losing too much altitude to make it back to Honolulu.
Cronin saved 345 lives on that flight, his last as a commercial pilot.
Best pilots older than me
In the mid-1990s, a senior captain for Southwest Airlines grabbed the controls from his co-pilot — who had had only a months experience on the Boeing 737 and was getting hands-on training — and prevented a runway collision with a twin-engine Piper Seneca taxiing across the runway. It was a nighttime landing in Albuquerque, N.M., and the co-pilot, fresh out of the Navy, where he had been flying single-engine fighters, never saw the private aircraft because he was struggling to align the jetliner with the runway.
“Just as we landed, I see this airplane right in front of us, recalled the captain, Gary Higby. “So I grabbed the airplane and firewalled the engines. Firewalling is applying a full forward thrust to the two engines.
Higby remembers that as the aircraft became airborne again, the left engine cleared the Seneca by a mere 10 feet. “I had lifted the left wing a little higher than the right wing just to get that left engine over the top, he said.
It was experience gathered from 15,000 hours of flying time that tipped him off that something was amiss, Higby said. In this instance, the changing pitch in the voice of the control towers air traffic controller added a telling clue. “As we were getting closer and closer to the ground — we must have been 200 feet from the ground—the tower guy, his voice was getting a few octaves higher, telling the Seneca, Hold short of Runway 8, hold short of Runway 8. Stop! And I was saying, Uh-oh, Im going to see something here in a minute,” he recalled.
“There is no substitute for experience, said Higby, a mere 50 years old at the time. “The best pilots I ever saw were a lot older than me.
200 miles off course
A 62-year-old “over-the-hill” flight engineer, Agis Rimkus, knew something was wrong as his Boeing 747 flew from Honolulu to Tokyo. “He had been across (the Pacific) so many times, so call it a sixth sense, call it experience, recalled a veteran United flight instructor familiar with the incident. “Something did not seem right to him.
Rimkus, reached at his home in Washington state, said that the captain and co-pilot had programmed incorrect coordinates into the navigational computer, and about midway through the flight had strayed some 200 miles off course, heading north, rather than west.
The flight engineer said it was not so much a sixth sense that alerted him they were flying off course as the computer telling him it would take far longer than the two had calculated to reach the next way point — a programmed location en route to their destination.
Rimkus said he told the captain about this several times over the next 40 minutes, and that the captain kept responding that the time discrepancy was a result of the airplane bucking 300-mile-an-hour winds, called a wind bust.
Rimkus said that such powerful winds exist, but seldom last more than a few minutes. Finally, he said, the captain did another plot on his navigational chart and discovered the error.
Had the airplane continued toward the wrong way point, Rimkus said, it eventually would have returned on a proper heading, but only after flying over airspace dedicated to other aircraft crossing the Pacific — risking a mid-air collision. He said that the jumbo, carrying more than 300 passengers, also could have run out of fuel before reaching Tokyo.
While few accounts of close calls can be found in public records, the files of the NTSB and the FAA are full of accident reports citing crew inexperience — with flying in general, or with a particular airplane — as a contributing factor. Among them are the much-publicized 1982 crashes of an Air Florida 737 during a Washington, D.C., blizzard that killed 74 on board, and the 1987 Continental DC-9 crash that killed 28 during a snowstorm in Denver.
Accidents attributed to inexperience are more common on commuter airlines, where young pilots cut their teeth before graduating to the larger carriers. A typical example is the June 1992 crash of a GP Express commuter near Anniston, Ala., that killed three, including the pilot. The co-pilot, who survived, told the NTSB that the accident was the fault of “two new guys at the controls, himself included, who simply couldnt find the runway in rainy weather. It had been pilot Vernon Schuetys first day on the job. The 29-year-old pilots flying experience had been limited to his stint in the Army, where he flew a helicopter.
Another example is the January 1994 crash of an Atlantic Coast Airlines Jetstream 41 during a nighttime “instrument” approach to Port Columbus Airport in Ohio. The crash killed five. The captain had logged only 39 hours of night flying and 20.5 hours of instrument time on that model, while the co-pilot had only 32 hours of overall flying time on the plane. The NTSB found that the commuter plane crashed because the crew had not maintained proper flight speed during “a very poorly planned and executed approach characterized by an absence of procedural discipline.”