In April 2019, an American Airlines plane had a serious takeoff incident at JFK. The incident was so bad that the plane involved ended up being scrapped. Over three years later, there’s an update, as investigators have released their final report, which is pretty damning for the captain. Perhaps the most shocking part is the transcript of what the pilots were saying to one another.
American Airlines plane’s terrifying takeoff from JFK
First let’s cover some basics of the accident. On April 10, 2019, an American Airlines Airbus A321 was operating flight AA300 from New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX). 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.
Long story short, the plane “rolled” to the left as it took off, causing the left wing to hit something during takeoff. It’s believed that the plane banked around 30 degrees to the left, to the point that the pilots were worried the plane would flip over.
As the plane passed through 20,000 feet, the pilots finally informed air traffic controllers of their intention to return to the airport. You can listen to the audio between the pilots and air traffic controllers below (which is pretty standard, and not nearly as interesting as the transcript that has been released from the cockpit, which I’ll cover below).
Anyway, the plane ended up sustaining some significant damage to the left wing. Examination revealed that the left wing had a permanent upward deflection, to the point that the left wingtip was about six inches higher than the right wingtip. As a result, the plane ended up being scrapped and used for parts. That gives you a sense of just how serious this incident was.
Pilot error blamed for American Airlines incident
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its final report about the incident. Investigators determined that the probable cause of this incident was pilot error. Specifically, the plane had a crosswind during takeoff, and the captain used the rudder excessively:
“The captain’s excessive left rudder pedal input during the takeoff ground roll, which caused a large heading deviation and a left roll upon rotation that resulted in the left wingtip striking the ground.”
The first officer claimed that the plane had banked around 30 degrees to the left, and feared that the plane was going to “roll over.” During takeoff the captain said “I can’t control it,” at which point the first officer grabbed his sidestick, applied right aileron and back pressure, and the airplane began to climb. Without that, one has to wonder how this would have ended.
For context, the crosswind wasn’t too bad. It was a roughly 14-17 knot crosswind from the right, well below the company’s 35-knot crosswind limitation. No faults were found with the plane as such.
Now, I can’t help put point out the bizarre parallels here between this flight and another one. Remember American Airlines flight AA587, which was an Airbus A300 that crashed shortly after 9/11, in November 2001? That plane took off from the same exact runway (and coincidentally that was operated by an Airbus A300, while this was flight number AA300). There was wake turbulence on departure, and the cause of the crash was the pilot’s excessive use of rudder.
American Airlines cockpit transcript is shocking
Rarely do we get to hear what pilots are actually discussing in tense situations. While there are cockpit voice recorders, they only record for around two hours. So only after a serious incident are they ever listened to. Well, in this case the entire transcript from this flight has been released, and it might make some people uneasy about flying.
I think it’s important to emphasize that both pilots in the flight deck were very experienced:
- The 58-year-old captain had nearly 20,000 flight hours, with around 3,000 hours on Airbus A320 family aircraft
- The first officer was the same age, and had 15,500 flight hours, with around 2,000 hours on Airbus A320 family aircraft
The point is, this was an exceptionally experienced crew, between the captain and first officer. Over 35,000 hours, with neither pilot being new to the jet, is just about all the experience you could hope for.
Anyway, let me share some key conversations, and I’ll note that when there’s a “#” in the transcript, that means there was an expletive used.
Here was the conversation right after takeoff when the incident first happened:
First officer: “Your airplane, your airplane, your airplane. I don’t know what’s goin’ on.”
Captain: “What the # (happened)?”
First officer: “I don’t know. Ah the engines all go, good.”
Captain: “The # ju- it just # rolled on me.”
First officer: “What the # is that? Are we continuing? #. These girls will never fly with
us again. I thought we were gone.”
First officer: “That scared the # outta me, I thought we were gone.”
Captain: “The # airplane just rolled on me dude.”
It’s interesting how one of the first things they bring up is how “these girls will never fly with us again,” presumably referring to the flight attendants.
Shortly thereafter the pilots had a more general discussion about the plane:
First officer: “# airplane, I swear to @.”
Captain: “# hate flyin’ this thing with any kinda crosswind. # me I’m gonna take some time off after that #.”
First officer: “Tell me about it.”
Captain: “Holy # I’m not workin’ tomorrow.”
It’s a little concerning if a captain with nearly 20,000 hours hates flying the plane when there’s any sort of a crosswind.
Then a flight attendant called the cockpit, and here’s the conversation:
Flight attendant: “What was that? That was so scary?”
Captain: “I know, I think we, we, we think we our, our rudder got jammed. We’re testing it out right now, we’re just lookin’ at all the flight controls. And ah, right now she seems to be operating pretty smoothly, so.”
Flight attendant: “Okay. Thank you I’m glad you’re experienced.”
Captain: “Yeah well, you know what? We, we, we’re just having a conversation about that. # Airbus man. this is the kinda # we don’t like about it. You know there’s so many computers we don’t, we don’t know what it # does sometimes.”
Flight attendant: “Okay.”
Captain: “That was a ah full left rudder on the, on the runway to keep it on the runway and then ah the one- the once we got airborne she just went # tits up.”
Flight attendant: “Okay just keep us abreast. Good job.”
It’s also nice to know the plane has so many computers that the captain doesn’t know how to use them, apparently!
This interaction is probably the most telling of the entire series:
Captain: “You ever notice on this airplane you go, you go full controls sometimes it doesn’t react, it doesn’t do anything?
First officer: “No, I don’t go full controls that often, so.”
That gets at the whole issue, since it seems the captain made a habit of going “full controls” too much, which is what caused this incident. You shouldn’t be going “full controls” for a moderate crosswind.
Then the pilots tried to decide whether to return to JFK or continue their flight. Interestingly they’re not motivated to return out of an abundance of caution, but rather due to politics and to cover their rears:
First officer: “Yeah I mean I’m just thinkin’ with that kind of an extreme maneuver, you know just, for the politics of it all. It might not be a bad idea go back, because, these girls will never fly with us again I’m tellin’ ya. and the, I mean that scared me that bad, that I’ve never been so scared in an airplane I don’t think I thought. I mean I wasn’t that scared because like, but I thought it was over. I thought we were goin down.”
Captain: “But yeah the passengers are probably all wondering and then people could ah monday morning quarterback you on continuing, with I’m just sayin’ that, I’m just putting that out there. I mean, I feel safe you know yeah let’s go, but you I’m just saying, I just wanted.”
First officer: “Or maybe call maintenance to cover your #. And tell ’em what happened and see what they- or just ah I don’t know yeah.”
Captain: “You know, I think you’re right.”
First officer: “I think you gotta cover your # on this one.”
At this point the decision was made to return to JFK. The captain then addressed the passengers, lying about having “isolated the faulty system.” Here’s the transcript of that:
Captain: “Ladies and gentlemen this is the captain speaking if I can have your attention please, ah we’ve got an issue with the airplane involving our ah flight control computers and ah we are ah made the decision to return to ah JFK airport and land the airplane and ah let the maintenance folks ah take it over. Should be ah touching down in Kennedy in about fifteen minutes or so, no cause for alarm the aircraft has been ah secured with the faulty system isolated and ah she’s handling very nicely at this point but ah no sense in ah continuing on to LA ah with with an aircraft ah in this particular condition so we’re gonna just for safety’ ah purposes ah return to JFK and land. And ahm once we get on the ground safely back at the gate we’ll start working the issue of getting a new airplane or ah figuring out how to get you all on your way. Appreciate your patience as ah we keep the operation as safe as ah as possible. Thanks again, again landing in about fifteen minutes.”
Well over three years after the incident, we now have a final report on what happened during an April 2019 departure from JFK that caused an American Airlines Airbus A321 to be written off.
The cause was determined to be the captain’s excessive use of left rudder during takeoff. And it seems that the captain had a history of using too much rudder, based on the transcript, during which he asked the first officer if he had the same issue when applying “full controls.”
It’s quite shocking to hear a captain with nearly 20,000 hours claim that he hates flying the plane if there’s any sort of a crosswind, and that he doesn’t know how a lot of the computers work.
It sounds like the first officer was significantly more competent in this case. Not only did his inputs during the takeoff roll potentially help avoid catastrophe, but he also said that he didn’t have experience with going “full controls,” because that’s not something you’re supposed to do with a moderate crosswind, well within operating limits.
This incident could have ended very differently, it seems. I’m sure I’m not the only one now wondering whether it’s common for pilots with 20,000 hours to act like this, or if this was just a very bad apple.
What do you make of this incident? Does anyone know what ended up happening to the pilots (or maybe that’s only being dealt with now, since the final report has been released)?