WASHINGTON — An airliner ran off a runway in Denver a year and a half ago because the flight’s captain failed to use the plane’s rudder to correct its direction during a strong crosswind, a federal safety panel said yesterday.
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Contributing to the accident was the failure by the air traffic control system to provide the pilots with key wind information, and the airline industry’s failure to incorporate high wind gusts into pilot training for takeoff in crosswinds, the board said.
The plane with 110 passengers and five crew members was in the midst of a takeoff roll at Denver International Airport on Dec. 20, 2008 when it suddenly veered left off a runway, rumbled across a frozen field, broke into pieces, and burned.
No one was killed, but six people were seriously injured and dozens more were treated for minor injuries.
The board emphasized that although there was a brief moment in which the captain could have prevented the accident, he had several factors working against him. Most important, the board said that if the captain had been told by the air traffic controller who cleared the flight for takeoff that there had been gusts as high as 46 miles per hour, it’s possible he would have waited until the wind had died down or requested a different runway.
The controller told pilots there was a crosswind of 31 miles per hour. He didn’t mention gusts. Continental’s guidance to 737 pilots was not to take off in crosswinds exceeding 38 miles per hour.
The captain had twice applied the plane’s right rudder during the first 12 seconds of the takeoff roll to correct its direction back to the right. But when a gust caused the plane to swing violently to the left, he reached instead for the tiller, which turns the nose wheel.