American Airlines Flight 191

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American Airlines Flight 191

Flight 191, its No. 1 engine severed on the runway, in an unrecoverable bank just moments before the crash.

Date   May 25, 1979
Type   Maintenance errors
Site   Chicago, Illinois
Fatalities   273 (2 on ground)
Injuries   2 (on ground)
Aircraft type   McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10
Operator   American Airlines
Tail number   N110AA
Passengers   258
Crew   13
Survivors   0

American Airlines Flight 191, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 aircraft, crashed on May 25, 1979, killing all 271 on board and two on the ground. Flight 191 was the deadliest airplane accident on U.S. soil, its death toll exceeded only by the deliberate crashes of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 in the September 11, 2001 attacks. The flight originated from O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois and was destined for Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California.


[edit] The crash

On takeoff from O'Hare the plane carried 258 passengers and 13 crew members. The captain was veteran Walter Lux, his first officer was James Dillard, and the flight engineer was Alfred Udovich. At 15:02 CDT, the aircraft began its takeoff down Runway 32R (Right).

Shortly before the takeoff rotation began, with 6,000 feet of runway covered, tower controllers witnessed the number one engine (left wing) separate from the aircraft and fly up and over the wing to crash onto the runway. The aircraft continued in a normal climb momentarily to around 350 feet (AGL), as fuel and leaking hydraulic fluid spewed in a vapour trail behind the plane. Such an incident is survivable in a DC-10; the shift in center of gravity and mean aerodynamic chord was within tolerances, and the aircraft could have landed safely if the engine loss had not caused other failures. However, in subsequent flight simulation testing, only pilots who were aware of Flight 191's specific problems were able to successfully recover from the stall.

Flight 191's final resting place. Damaged mobile homes can be seen to the right. Two occupants of these homes were killed.

The pilots aimed to reduce speed from 165 knots to the recommended engine-out climb speed of 153 knots, but the engine separation had severed the hydraulic lines that controlled the aircraft's leading-edge wing slats (retractable devices that increase a wing's lift during takeoff and landing). Further, the missing engine supplied the electricity to the captain's instruments - notably stall warning, slats disagreement, and stick shaker, which were only available to the captain and not replicated in the first officer's instruments. Unusually, the backup power to the captain's instruments was not engaged by the flight engineer. This meant that the pilots were unaware of the aircraft's true configuration. DC-10 aircraft engines are not visible from the cockpit windows and the control tower did not inform the flight crew of what they had seen.

As the hydraulic fluid bled away, the slats retracted on the left wing, raising that wing's stall speed from 124 knots to around 160 knots, resulting in a significant loss of lift. As the pilots slowed the aircraft the left wing stalled, and with the right wing still providing lift the aircraft quickly entered an uncontrollable 112-degree left bank and pitched nose-down from around 325 feet, slamming into an open field approximately 4,600 ft from the end of the runway northwest of the airport at 15:04 CDT after about 31 seconds in the air. The plane struck an abandoned hangar, but the site was mostly an empty field north of Touhy Ave and just east of a mobile home park (map). With a full load of fuel, the crash generated a huge fireball causing a plume of smoke so large it could be seen from the Downtown Chicago Loop. The aircraft disintegrated and burned, and all 271 people on board were killed during the impact and explosion. In addition some wreckage was thrown into a nearby mobile home park killing two residents and seriously injuring two others.

Although the plane's cockpit voice recorder was powered by the severed number #1 engine, it picked up one of the crew saying "..Damn.." before recording ceased [1]. The control tower radioed the cockpit when they witnessed the engine separation just after take-off, but the crew didn't answer as they were too busy trying to save the aircraft: "Alright American 1, 91 heavy, ..You wanna come back?.. and what runway?."... "He's not talkin to me ... " sound clip.

The disaster and investigation was quickly and thoroughly covered by the media assisted by new news gathering technologies. The public impact of the accident was increased by dramatic amateur photos [2] taken of the incident, which were published on the banner of the Chicago Tribune the following day.`

At the time, American Airlines allowed passengers to watch their planes' takeoffs and landings on closed-circuit television. It is not known whether passengers were able to thus see the crash occurring. One Michael Laughlin from Toronto actually filmed the flight and crash through a window at the O'Hare terminal. The destination airport, LAX, was careful to keep the arriving media away from passenger relatives who were waiting for Flight 191.

[edit] The NTSB investigation

See also: Joe White

An FAA diagram of the DC-10 engine and pylon assembly indicating the failed aft pylon attach fitting.

The resulting investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was released on December 21 1979. It revealed the probable cause to be attributable to damage to the left wing engine pylon that occurred during an earlier engine change at American Airlines's aircraft overhaul facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The pylon was damaged due to an incorrectly executed engine removal procedure. The correct procedure called for removal of the engine prior to the removal of the engine pylon. To save time and costs, American Airlines instructed its mechanics to remove the engine together with the pylon all at one time. Joe Leonard, the current chairman of AirTran airlines, was American's director of maintenance at that time and approved this procedure. A large forklift was used to hold the engine up while it was detached from the wing. During the procedure a crew shift change occurred, leaving the forklift unmonitored for a period of time. A problem in the fork lift's hydraulic system caused it to tilt the engine while still under the wing. This exerted enough pressure on the engine pylon to create a large indentation and a serious fracture in its body. The fracture went unnoticed for several flights, getting worse with each flight that the plane had taken. During flight 191's takeoff, enough force was generated to finally cause the pylon to fail. With the failure the left engine detached from under the wing and tore away. With the loss of the engine and the position of the slats, the plane was destined for disaster. The NTSB concluded that given the circumstances of the situation, the pilots were not in any way to blame for the resulting accident. The lead mechanic, who had performed the overhaul techniques, killed himself just hours before he was to give a deposition to the investigation.[3]

This method of engine-pylon removal saved man hours and was encouraged despite the manufacturer issuing bulletins that specified how the procedure should have taken place. These were not binding. The accident investigation also concluded that the design of the pylon and adjacent surfaces made the parts difficult to service and prone to damage by maintenance crews.

In his book Blind Trust, John J. Nance argues that the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act caused havoc and induced cost-cutting in the industry producing a serious erosion of the margin of safety for passengers. Nance argues that the industry "reverted from an industry under partial surveillance to an industry running on the honor system..". [4].

[edit] Afterwards

First responders survey the Flight 191 crash site in Des Plaines, Illinois.

Problems with DC-10s were discovered as a cause of the accident, including deficiencies in both design specifications and maintenance procedures which made damage very likely. Since this tragedy happened just before a Western Airlines DC-10 crashed in Mexico City and six years after a Turkish Airlines DC-10 crashed in Paris, the FAA quickly ordered all DC-10s to be grounded until all problems were solved. The result of the problem-solving was an arguably more efficient and safe DC-10.

[edit] Notable facts

[edit] Victims

Itzhak Bentov, the celebrated biomedical inventor (the cardiac catheter), New Age author (Stalking the Wild Pendulum and A Cosmic Book) and kundalini-researcher was one of the crash victims.

Another victim was author Judith Wax, who perished along with her husband, Sheldon Wax. Judith was a frequent contributor to Playboy magazine (of which Sheldon was managing editor), notably the annual "Christmas cards" piece that "presented" short satirical poems to various public figures. It was reported at the time that in her 1979 book Starting in the Middle, she had talked about her fear of flying and that her comments appeared on Page 191<ref>Starting in the Middle by Judith Wax, Henry Holt & Company, ISBN 0-030202-96-5. In the edition published before Wax's death her comments about her fear of flying actually appear on page 129.</ref>. The magazine's fiction editor Vicki Haider also lost her life in the crash[5].

Several victims were members of the American Booksellers Association on their way to its annual convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center where they were to have a joint party organised by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

Actress Cyd Charisse's daughter-in-law, Sheila Charisse, was also a victim of the crash.

[edit] Premonitions and almost victims

Actress Lindsay Wagner, TV's Bionic Woman, was scheduled to fly on the ill-fated plane, but she felt uneasy about it just prior to boarding. As a result, Wagner decided to skip the flight, a decision that saved her life.

Power-pop band Shoes were also scheduled to be on the flight, but at the last minute switched to another flight scheduled for the following Tuesday. [6]

Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers reports the case of David Booth. In 1979, he had a series of recurring premonitory dreams that tormented him for ten consecutive nights. He saw a plane take off from an airport, bank steeply and then crash. On 22 May he called the FAA at Greater Cincinnati International Airport, American Airlines, and a psychiatrist at University of Cincinnati. The authorities took him seriously -- the FAA had guessed from Booth's description that the plane was a DC-10 -- but they could do nothing about it. The accident occurred three days after Booth's dreams in almost exactly the way Booth envisioned. Leonard Nimoy's documentary TV series In Search Of... featured an episode entitled Air Disaster Predictions which covered the case of Flight 191 and its possible prediction by Booth.

[edit] History and media

The crash in Chicago remains the most deadly single-aircraft accident in United States history. Another flight with the same number, Delta Air Lines Flight 191, crashed at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in 1985. Both carriers have since retired the flight number 191, as is currently customary after major accidents on US airlines. In addition, Puerto Rican airline Prinair also had a fatal flight numbered Fight 191. The only fatal X-15 crash was also Flight No. 191. On August 27, 2006 Comair Flight 191 (Delta Air Lines Flight 5191) crashed after leaving the runway in Lexington, KY bound for Atlanta.

The cable/satellite TV channel The History Channel produced a documentary on the crash: The Crash of Flight 191. In 2004, it was awarded Gold Word Medals by the New York Festivals awards company. The programme was awarded "Best Show" in the History and Society category and "Best Writing" for a Documentary and Informational program.

The "Bible & Literature Missionary Foundation" issued a 1979 pamphlet by Kenny McComas titled "The Sad Fate of Flight 191" [7].

This crash was mentioned by the character Kenny Burns in Michael Crichton's Airframe.

An episode of Cold Case Files also featured the crash of Flight 191. The episode concerned a man who blamed a woman's death on this plane crash, but she was never listed to be on the plane.

Recently, the National Geographic Channel featured a new episode of Seconds From Disaster detailing the crash of flight 191.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  • Nance, John J., Blind Trust, William Morrow & Co, 1987. ISBN 0-688-05360-2
  • Seconds From Disaster: "Flight Engine Down" on National Geographic Channel.

[edit] Footnotes


[edit] External links

American Airlines Flight 191

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