THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Logan crash leaves a trail of questions

Why did one jet stop, the other rumble into it?

Get Adobe Flash player
By David Abel and Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / July 16, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

When a massive jet clipped a smaller plane at Logan International Airport, it was the runway equivalent of a fender-bender, but with hundreds of tons of metal and thousands of pounds of fuel involved, the grazing could have sparked catastrophe.

Although Thursday night’s crash left only one woman with minor injuries, the National Transportation Safety Board has elevated its investigation to the agency’s highest level, reflecting the severity of damage to the aircraft.

“This accident is getting the serious attention it deserves from the agencies that need to investigate it,’’ said Jim Peters, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, which is helping with the investigation.

The inquiry will look at whether pilot error, mistakes by ground controllers, or the impending emergency landing of another aircraft could have played a role.

Board spokesman Peter Knudson said yesterday that the agency has already sent the flight data and cockpit voice recorders from Delta Flight 266 and Atlantic Southeast Flight 4904 to its labs in Washington.

It will take 10 business days before the agency issues a preliminary report, but it will take much longer before investigators identify the cause of the crash, Knudson said. Investigators will review recordings from the airport’s new ground radar system, interview crews from both aircraft and the air traffic controllers directing them, and inspect the planes to document what happened.

“We’ll be looking at any number of things, but we’re not going to get into speculating about the cause,’’ Knudson said.

The crash occurred about 7:33 p.m., moments after the Atlantic Southeast flight, a comparatively small Canadair Regional Jet 900 heading to Raleigh-Durham with 74 passengers aboard, made a left turn from Logan’s Taxiway B onto Taxiway M and stopped suddenly. The Delta flight, a much larger Boeing 767 bound for Amsterdam with 204 passengers, followed right behind on Taxiway B.

Knudson said the left wingtip of the larger plane, as it proceeded on Taxiway B, clipped the tail of the smaller plane, slicing it with such force that its winglet remained lodged in the smaller plane’s tail after they separated.

It remains unclear why that happened, but there are several possible reasons. Among them, the pilots in the larger plane may have failed to pay sufficient attention to the smaller plane as it turned. Another possible explanation could be poor instructions from ground and air traffic controllers.

FAA officials said there were no mechanical problems on either aircraft before the crash and weather was not a factor.

“Anything that took place while this accident was occurring could be included in the investigation,’’ Peters said.

Another possible explanation is that the pilots of the 767 were unable to see whether the smaller jet had cleared the 767’s wingspan of 156 feet. The larger jet, the height of a five-story building, is more than twice as high off the ground as the smaller plane.

“From the cockpit, it’s almost impossible to see your own wingtip,’’ said Greg Reinhardt, a veteran commercial airline pilot with 41 years of flying experience, including six years in 767s for United Airlines. “The wings start at the middle of the aircraft, well back behind you’’ and are difficult to see because of the curvature of the airplane’s cockpit, he said.

Operating a 767 on a taxiway requires a good deal of spatial judgment by pilots, he said. Despite that, wingtip collisions are rare.

“Whether we’re in flight or on the ground, we’re trained to always be aware of our surroundings,’’ he said.

Former United pilot Bob Rossi, who has flown many wide-body jets, including the 767, said aircraft are not supposed to stop on taxiways without authorization, referring to the report that the smaller plane halted abruptly.

“But the captain of the wide-body [767] should not have continued if he didn’t think he could clear,’’ Rossi said. “It’s going to come down to that; he did the hitting.’’

Delta, which also operated the Atlantic Southeast flight under contract, declined to answer questions.

“At this point, the NTSB has opened its investigation, so you’ll have to contact them for any information about the cause of the incident,’’ Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter said in an e-mail.

Atlantic Southeast spokeswoman Allison Baker confirmed that the regional jet was stationary when it was hit. “They were holding on the taxiway,’’ she said. She did not know if the pilots were following instructions from air traffic controllers when they stopped. “This is all going to be part of the investigation,’’ she said.

Around the time of the crash, pilots in a US Airways flight radioed Logan to say they needed to make an emergency landing.

The US Airways plane was experiencing possible hydraulic problems and needed to land on Runway 4R, the same runway where the Amsterdam-bound flight was heading.

The emergency landing sparked a large response of emergency vehicles and required a high level of coordination between air traffic controllers, flights on the runway, and ground crews.

FAA officials said the US Airways flight from Washington landed at 7:44 p.m., about 11 minutes after the jets crashed on the taxiway.

FAA and NTSB officials said the emergency landing would be factored into the investigation.

“There’s no way of knowing whether this played a role, without being able to talk to the controllers and the crew involved in this incident,’’ Peters said. “They haven’t been interviewed yet.’’

Michael Newman, 40, of Lexington, who said he was a passenger on the US Airways flight, said emergency vehicles were already on the tarmac when his flight landed.

“I suspect that the crash was caused indirectly by the emergency landing, and the effect it was having on either, (1) the take-off schedule, and/or, (2) the emergency vehicles on the tarmac,’’ he wrote in an e-mail.

Logan Airport has a history of near collisions of aircraft on busy runways.

A 2007 federal study ranked Logan as fourth in the nation in runway incursions, close calls involving planes or other vehicles that nearly collide or take wrong turns on the tarmac.

Logan has had 121 incursions since 2000, with five occurring this year, including two this month, according to the FAA. In one incident last September, the pilot of an Airbus A319 made a wrong turn and proceeded on a closed taxiway, despite directions from the control tower.

Officials said the crash on Thursday was not an incursion, because both planes were authorized to be on their taxiways.

In the 2007 report, the Government Accountability Office counted 30 near-collisions, the most dangerous type of runway incursion, at Logan between fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2006, including several that the FAA designated as serious, “where collisions were narrowly or barely avoided.’’

To reduce the possibility of collisions, Logan last year became the nation’s first airport to introduce an elaborate, $3.6 million system of lights and radar designed to prevent collisions and close calls.

The Runway Status Lights system uses incandescent red lights embedded in the pavement to warn pilots when it is unsafe to enter, cross, or proceed down a runway. The system uses data from ground-based radar, transponders aboard airplanes, and other sensors to issue direct warnings to pilots about potential incursions or collisions.

Phil Orlandella, a Logan spokesman, said the new system had no role in the crash.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel. Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.

Related

Interactive graphic
Get Adobe Flash player