Oct. 19, 1996, the day Flight 554 crashed
Twenty years ago today, my Delta flight from Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport to New York’s LaGuardia Airport crashed. OK, that’s a bit melodramatic. Here is the lead from the resulting National Transportation Safety Board report:
About 1638 eastern daylight time, on October 19, 1996, a McDonnell Douglas MD-88, N914DL, operated by Delta Air Lines, Inc., as flight 554, struck the approach light structure and the end of the runway deck during the approach to land on runway 13 at the LaGuardia Airport, in Flushing, New York.
The result was that the plane slammed to the tarmac and spun like a top on its naked belly, skidding half a mile down runway 13.
I’ve been thinking about that flight a lot lately, partly because this is the 20th anniversary of something traumatic and also because I just saw the movie “Sully.” That’s the story of a pilot named Chesley Sullenberger who took off from that same LaGuardia Airport and promptly put his passenger jet down in the Hudson River. There were no serious injuries as the result of that unfortunate landing, nor mine, and I have often wondered whether the pilot of my jet ought to be considered a hero like Sully or something else. Did he battle weather conditions or mechanical malfunction and manage to keep everyone safe against all odds? Did he screw up? Or is there a third possibility?
That day, I was on my way to New York to cover Game 1 of the 1996 World Series. The Atlanta Braves were to play the New York Yankees in storied Yankee Stadium. I was a sportswriter for The Times of Gainesville, Ga., at a time when newspapers like this could afford travel like that.
My memories of that crash-landing are spotty. I remember we were flying through a violent rainstorm. I recall that the plane was about a third full. I remember seeing sportscaster Greg Gumbel in first class. And I remember the sound at impact, like being inside an aluminum can when it’s squeezed. I can still see across the aisle, as the plane spun down the runway, and into the wide eyes of a woman about my age. I remember sliding down the emergency evacuation slide and the feeling of standing on the runway of a major international airport in the pouring rain. I can still hear the sirens rushing toward us. I will never forget a 7-year-old kid named A.J. Yarde, who had been sitting in seat 15D that day. I talked to him while authorities counted heads, after we all made it safely back to the airport.
A year later, the NTSB rendered the verdict in a report of Accident ID: NYC97MA005 and it wasn’t particularly kind to my pilot. The bottom line:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the inability of the captain, because of his use of monovision contact lenses, to overcome his misperception of the airplane’s position relative to the runway during the visual portion of the approach.
In other words, the pilot (whose name, unlike Sully’s, I was unable to find anywhere) was using unapproved, specifically banned, contact lenses that affected his depth perception. One contact corrected for distance visual acuity and the other for near visual acuity. Just how ill-advised were those monovision lenses? One optometrist told the NTSB it would be “difficult to parallel park a car” while wearing them. Be that as it may, my unnamed pilot had worn the lenses on dozens of flights over the previous six years.
Let’s not suggest my pilot was unqualified or otherwise lax. In fact, the 48-year-old captain had been with Delta for 18 years at the time of the crash and had logged 10,024 hours in the air, including 3,756 hours in command of the MD-88. Colleagues described him as “quiet,” “easy to get along with” and “by the book, procedurally (sic).”
Except, apparently, when it came to his vision.
It should be noted that some experts did not agree with the NTSB’s finding of cause. Aviation consultant Robert Baron quoted a number of vision experts in writing a guest editorial for AirlineSafty.com. One suggested an age-related loss of vision known as presbyopia might have been to blame rather than monovision correction, which pilots had used for years without a incident.
Baron quoted a Dr. Brent Blue, who at the time was a senior medical aviation examiner and medical adviser to the U.S. Aerobatics Team. Blue noted the fog and rain, the poor light conditions at that time of day, the irregular spacing of runway lights. And everyone acknowledged that the approach to LaGuardia was tricky under any circumstances. “With all that going on,” Blue told Baron, “I am not sure how they focused on the pilot’s contact lenses since he had made hundreds of normal landings up to that time.”
Three passengers reported minor injuries, including young A.J. One passenger complained of neck pain and was taken to the hospital only to be released the same day. While no one was seriously injured, this was a big deal. In fact, it closed LaGuardia for a full day.
The impact itself was fierce. The flight data recorder “experienced data loss” as a result of “acceleration forces” and/or hitting both the approach lights in Flushing Bay and the runway pier. There was damage to two approach light standards in the bay, to the end of the runway deck that juts over the bay and to light structures on the ground. Much of the landing gear was never found and wreckage was scattered the length of the 2,700-foot skid. An estimated 600 gallons of jet fuel leaked from the airplane’s right wing, which explains the smell of burnt engine oil from my seat very near the wing.
The pilot’s eyewear was not all the NTSB had issue with that day.
An hour before Flight 554 hit, four pilots executed so-called “missed approaches” as the result of high winds during an attempted landing. The airport employed six Low Level Windshear Alert System sensors at the time. Despite the apparent wind, none of them sounded an alert that afternoon. In fact, inspectors found that three of those sensors failed to pick up any wind at all during the season’s first Nor’easter. The FAA told the NTSB it was “improving and expanding” the sensor system at the time of the crash. While it did find unreliable wind sensors, the NTSB did not find evidence of windshear nor that the weather played a significant role in the crash.
Nobody asked me, but I beg to differ. How else to explain all those other safe landings with monovision lenses? In fact, a trio of U.S. Air Force medical experts noted a “visually deprived environment” in their brief to the NTSB on the likelihood of monovision lenses causing such a crash. (They also said they advised their pilots against wearing the things.)
In addition, the NTSB found “deficiencies” in the actions of some flight attendants. Investigators found one did nothing for 38 seconds after being commanded by the flight crew to evacuate the airplane.
There were a series of recommendations to the FAA and to eye doctors, who were subsequently made aware of the potential problem of pilots wearing monovision contacts.
Which brings us to the voice recorder transcript. As you might expect, there was some friendly, slightly off-color banter, before the crash. Before you feign shock, think about the way you speak at your job and imagine someone recording your every word. At one point in a rocky approach, the pilot says to the flight crew, “How many are puking back there?” The first officer chuckles and says, “Let’s make it good and hot back there.”
The sound of impact can be heard at 4:38 p.m. Two seconds later, someone in the tower exclaims, “Yo, Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill … Bill.”
The next three things the pilot says are represented on the transcript by #, which is the NTSB’s symbol for expletive deleted. The cussing is followed by the voice of the first officer, who appears to have been the cooler customer in my own version of “Sully.”
“OK, OK, settle down, Joe,” the unnamed first officer says. “It’s alright. It’s alright.”
And it was. Twenty years ago today, those of us on Flight 554 were “inches from doom,” as the New York Daily News told it the next day. Heroism didn’t save us that day. It was something else.
One last thing I remember about that day. A New York City detective asked to speak with the pilot as we all gathered ourselves in an airport conference room after the crash. I remember a woman in a Delta uniform telling that incredulous detective that the pilot wouldn’t be available for an interview with police. Unlike the passengers represented in the last scene in “Sully,” the 58 souls who survived Flight 554 don’t get together every so often to hug our pilot and share our memories. Our story is a little less heroic, and a lot more real.