FAA allegedly knew of USAir cockpit infractions

September 22, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Two months before the fatal crash here of a USAir DC-9, a Federal Aviation Administration safety assessment found a trend among pilots of violating the airline's cockpit procedures, an FAA inspector testified yesterday.

Because of that finding, the FAA stepped up its supervision of the carrier's operations and has scheduled another assessment next month, said David Bowden, the FAA's principal operations inspector at USAir.

"We have informed the carrier we're going to be doing more follow-up assessments," Mr. Bowden said.

Mr. Bowden's disclosure came during the third day of National Transportation Safety Board hearings into the July 2 crash of USAir Flight 1016 at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.

The crash, which killed 37 of 57 people aboard, was the fourth of five for the airline in the last five years. Earlier this month, a USAir Boeing 737 crashed outside Pittsburgh, killing all 132 aboard.

The news of the violations comes during a rough week for the beleaguered airline during the hearings here.

NTSB investigators' questions have indicated that they are zeroing in on questions of pilot error, cockpit procedure and USAir's training programs in seeking to explain the Charlotte crash.

Mr. Bowden said the airline showed no pattern of noncompliance with federal air regulations, which generally cover the most serious pilot lapses.

But FAA documents showed several violations had been uncovered in the assessment, including a pilot trainer falsely certifying that a captain had been given wind-shear training.

Mr. Bowden said the FAA and USAir had established a program, called Compliance through Partnership, to counter that trend.

Describing a close relationship with the carrier, Mr. Bowden said the agency regularly declines to take action against USAir's pilots for violations of federal air regulations in order to ensure their cooperation on safety issues.

NTSB investigators insistently questioned the approach.

Ronald Schleede, an NTSB hearing officer, challenged Mr. Bowden to explain "how can we ensure that this isn't the FAA being in bed with the carrier."

Mr. Bowden replied that the relationship is appropriate as long as the emphasis is on compliance.

With only 11 inspectors to monitor an airline of about 5,200 pilots, there is little alternative, he said.

"I cannot follow up on every noncompliance that we find up there," he said. "I have to rely on the carrier to do that."

Mr. Bowden said his agency still will take action in serious cases, adding that the agency had taken administrative actions against three of the carrier's crews in the past year for "very serious violations" of federal air regulations.

Mr. Bowden cited an incident in which the FAA recommended the emergency revocation of a USAir pilot's and co-pilot's certificates for lying and attempting to cover up a violation, only to have an NTSB panel overrule the action.

He was referring to an incident on Feb. 22, when USAir Flight 565 left Washington National Airport, heading for Boston, without refueling, requiring an emergency landing at New York's LaGuardia Airport.

In that case, the captain instructed the co-pilot to falsely tell New York air traffic controllers that the aircraft was losing oil pressure in one of its engines.

Capt. Don McClure, air safety coordinator for the Air Line Pilots Association, also defended the FAA-USAir program, calling it a "win-win situation for everybody, including the passengers."

"If there's nothing but a disciplinary process with sanctions, the free flow of information would not be there," he said.

In other testimony, a researcher for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration told the NTSB that the USAir DC-9 that crashed in Charlotte flew into "the most intense microburst we have simulated for any case to date."

Meteorologist Fred Proctor said the microburst, a sudden down-draft that gives off wind shear when it hits the ground, appeared to rank in the top 0.1 percent of microbursts ever recorded.

Earlier, an expert in weather radar systems suggested that pilots, airlines and others in aviation should take wind-shear alarms, which can signal a microburst, anywhere near the landing site more seriously.

F. Wesley Wilson of the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology noted that the pilot of Flight 1016 received a warning of wind shear on the next runway over from its landing strip two minutes before impact, when its chances of breaking off its approach safely would have been much greater.

"I would prefer that people treat microbursts just as they would treat slush on the wings. That is, when in doubt, don't go," he said.

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