I saw a headline regarding this last week, but never read the full details of this story until now. The more I read the details, the more shocked I am by what happened. This seems terrifying for those onboard. The NTSB is now investigating this, even going so far as to call it an “accident.”
The story of AA300
On Wednesday, April 10, 2019, an American Airlines A321 was operating flight AA300 from New York JFK to Los Angeles. This was one of American’s “A321T” aircraft, in a swanky three cabin configuration with just 102 seats. The flight was carrying 109 people, including 101 passengers and eight crew.
There are two ways you can tell this story — there’s the actual order of events, and there’s the order in which the pilots processed the events. I think to be as accurate as possible based on the details we know, it makes sense to cover this in the order in which the pilots uncovered the situation.
How the pilots uncovered the situation
After the plane took off and climbed through about 20,000 feet (over halfway to its cruising altitude), the pilot contacted ATC, asking to return to the airport.
“Hey when we departed we had a strong roll to the left and as we’re climbing, we have decided that we’d like to return back to Kennedy.”
He’s asked if the plane is okay and says “the plane is fine right now. We just want to return to Kennedy and have them check it out.”
When asked about the details, the pilot says “we were banking, uncontrolled bank 45 degrees to the left.”
When asked if he thought it was wake turbulence (where the wake of another aircraft can cause extreme turbulence), the pilot advised he doesn’t think that was the case, and once again confirms they had an uncontrolled roll to the left as they rotated.
At that point the plane is vectored back to JFK where it landed about 30 minutes after takeoff.
Here’s the full ATC audio, should you want to hear it:
Okay, so two thoughts:
- From the ATC audio you’d think this isn’t a big deal at all, based on how the pilots downplay the situation; it sounds like at this point the pilots didn’t realize what happened to the plane
- At the same time, they suggest the plane uncontrollably banked at a 45 degree angle
I’ll admit I’m not an A321 pilot, but would a 45 degree bank on takeoff not be cause for serious alarm?! I do question how good the pilots are at angles here, but still…
Anyway, what the pilots apparently didn’t realize is that one of the wingtips struck a sign while the plane banked, causing serious damage.
Passengers report that during the climb out the pilot told passengers they were returning to JFK due to a “computer malfunction,” though obviously that wasn’t the case.
Those are all the facts that we have as of now, though it will be interesting to see what the NTSB report on this incident reveals, in particular regarding:
- How the pilots didn’t realize that they struck something on takeoff, causing serious damage; did the pilots only realize there was damage when they landed, or did someone in the cabin notice it, alert the flight attendants, and they alerted the pilots?
- How the pilots thought that the plane banked 45 degrees uncontrollably during takeoff, and didn’t think that was serious enough to warrant an immediate return to the airport
- Most importantly, what happened to cause the plane to bank uncontrollably after takeoff
Thank goodness the plane landed back at JFK safely. This incident seems like it could have been a lot worse…
At first glance this reminds me a bit of the Qatar Airways incident in Miami a few years ago, where the plane overran the runway due to taking off at the wrong intersection, and then they hit runway lights, but didn’t realize they did so.
I’m not saying the American situation is the same, but rather just that the lack of pilots being aware of the situation seems similar.