The Arkansas Crash: A Case of Balky Brakes?

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Dead pilots, alas, offer no explanations. But three days after American Airlines Flight 1420 made its disastrous landing in Little Rock, Ark., NTSB investigators are hearing an interesting story from that old aviation tattletale, the black box. And according to the data, two of the ways a pilot keeps his plane from running out of runway were used either intermittently or not at all. On Tuesday night, as rain and gusting winds buffeted the fast-shrinking runway, Flight 1420's wing flaps were never deployed, and its thrust reversers, usually used consistently throughout a landing, cycled on and off twice -- almost as if captain Richard Buschmann were pumping the brakes. Then, eight seconds before the end of the recording, while the engine was near idling, the left thrust reverser deployed and the right did not. Officials are wondering whether that caused the skid responsible for most of the damage.

Mechanical malfunction -- or creative piloting? The pilot's colleagues say Buschmann, who helped supervise 1,800 pilots in Chicago, had an excellent record and was unlikely to take risks. He had logged 5,500 hours of flight time in the MD-80 series of aircraft. But Buschmann and his crew had also been on the job for thirteen and a half hours, 30 minutes short of American's limit. Could he have been tired and in a hurry to land and clock out? Investigators said Buschmann was warned twice about dangerous wind shear and received more notice than usual of bad conditions as he prepared to land. But he had the go-ahead from the air traffic controller, and the NTSB isn't pointing any fingers. They plan to interview the injured copilot on Friday to find out whether Buschmann was betrayed by his plane, his judgment or simply Mother Nature. But as NTSB member George Black said Thursday, "It could be that the only person who knows the answer to that question is no longer with us."