CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Seconds before a USAir DC-9 airliner crashed in a sudden, violent thunderstorm here July 2, the plane's captain abruptly took over the controls from the first officer without giving a verbal warning, according to cockpit tapes and a federal investigators' report released yesterday.
The report was issued as the National Transportation Safety Board began public hearings into a fiery accident that killed 37 of the 60 people aboard USAir Flight 1016 from Columbia, S.C., to Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.
The fatal crash was the fourth for the airline in five years and was followed two months later by the unexplained destruction of a USAir Boeing 737 as it approached Pittsburgh Sept. 8, with the loss of all 132 aboard.
It is not clear whether the actions of Capt. Michael Greenlee made any difference in the fate of the Charlotte flight, which apparently wasslammed to the ground about a second later by a vertical wind shear that one pilots union official compared to a ton of bricks falling on the plane.
But the incident, which apparently resulted in both men having their hands on the throttle at the same time, raised serious questions about USAir's pilot training and crew discipline.
The captain's actions also recalled the final moments of a USAir flight that crashed at New York's La Guardia Airport in 1989, killing two. In that case, the NTSB rebuked the captain, who was also sitting in the co-pilot's seat, for the manner in which he took control from the first officer during an aborted takeoff.
Three pilot certification officials for USAir told investigators yesterday that if the first officer were flying the plane they would expect him to stay at the controls during the procedure for a missed approach. But they noted that USAir had no written guidelines addressing such a situation.
Both the pilot and the first officer, James Philip Hayes, survived the crash. Federal Aviation Administration records showed both pilots with spotless records.
The flight operations report issued by the NTSB was one of a thick stack of investigative documents released yesterday addressing the many factors that could have contributed to the Charlotte tragedy. The NTSB will not officially rule on what were the primary and what were the contributing causes until next year.
But the investigators' reports and early testimony painted a vivid picture of how a multitude of lapses and omissions could contribute to a devastating accident. In particular, the evidence indicated that at various times pilots failed to communicate with air traffic controllers, controllers failed to communicate with pilots and among themselves, and National Weather Service officials failed to communicate with controllers.
Nothing in the documents or yesterday's testimony challenged early indications that the main culprit was the weather. According to the reports, Flight 1016 ran into a treacherous storm that abruptly changed from light rain to a deluge that wiped out all visibility.
"I do not ever recall seeing rain fall that heavily," Captain Greenlee said.
As the plane approached the runway from the north and descended to about 1,200 feet, the captain ordered the first officer to break off the landing and circle around for another approach.
But the sudden increase in the storm's intensity was accompanied by a wind shear so strong that a National Weather Service observer who testified yesterday said he thought the spike on his graph was the result of mechanical failure. The burst apparently hit just as the first officer pushed the throttle into full-power position and started to turn the plane to the right.
It was at this point, with airspeed dropping and the plane failing to climb, that the captain took the throttle without announcing he was doing so.
"He said this was not a conscious decision, but he did so because [he] perceived that the situation was going badly," said the operations investigation report.
Capt. Thomas Kreamer, a veteran USAir pilot and a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, said the pilot would normally tell the first officer what he was doing, but he defended Captain Greenlee's action.
'You're in an emergency situation -- you do whatever you have to do," Captain Kreamer said.
Captain Greenlee and First Officer Hayes are to testify today.
Yesterday's hearing showed the safety board is not just focusing on USAir and its pilots. Two air traffic controllers at Charlotte, Fred Masi and Jeffrey Vincent, came under withering cross-examination from NTSB investigator Sandra Simpson regarding the reasons they did not warn Flight 1016 about the intensity of the storm and rapid loss of visibility on the airport's west runway.
The investigation also brought to light various systemic failures, including the lack of Doppler radar.