The pilot who rode the University of Michigan’s basketball charter off the end of a Willow Run Airport runway last year broke protocol, confounded the higher ranking pilot next to him — and might well have saved 116 lives.
No one was seriously hurt on March 8, 2017, when an Ameristar Air Cargo MD-83 skidded 1,000 feet past the end of runway 23L on a day so windy that the control tower lost power and was evacuated.
But according to the transcript of the cockpit voice recorder, part of the investigative report released last week by the National Transportation Safety Board, the pilot’s terse “Abort” at 187 mph was met with a historically sensible, procedurally correct and potentially fatal response.
“No. Not above —” the copilot said, referring to takeoff speed. Then: “(Expletive.)”
What the captain felt in his hands, and the copilot had no way of knowing, was that the two-engine jetliner was not going to climb. The yoke “felt heavy, like there was a stack of bricks on the nose,” he told investigators, and so he immediately did exactly what pilots are trained to avoid.
Because 54-year-old pilot Mark Radloff overrode a century of aviation wisdom, the Wolverines were able to evacuate the crippled plane and fly to Washington, D.C., the next morning. They took the court in their practice uniforms, beat Illinois by 20 points and went on to win the Big Ten tournament.
The report on the incident is deliberately clinical, omitting the exclamation points that surely came with potential disaster. Profanities are expressed with a simple “#.” Much of the 881 pages are either technical or mundane. The analysis of weather conditions for the spot where the plane had been parked overnight, crosswise to the wind, runs 20 pages and includes four maps, three charts and 16 models.
There are no conclusions; precedent says the NTSB will not release its official determination for another six to 12 months.
But there is the clear suggestion that the crucial failed part — an elevator, which controls upward and downward movement of the plane — jammed amid wind gusts that were theoretically not serious enough to require a physical inspection. There is discussion about the airline’s rules regarding who would order that inspection. There is enough concern from Ameristar that it has grounded its other MD-83.
And there is drama in the account of the final occupied moments of an aircraft that would be declared a total loss by Ameristar’s insurance company.
“(Expletive),” said copilot Andreas Gruseus, whose title with the airline is chief pilot. “Don’t abort above V-1 like that.”
“(Expletive),” he said, four seconds later — but he did not attempt to override or intervene, and his feet mashed the brake pedals, too.
“It wasn’t flying,” Radloff said, and four seconds after that, the MD-83 and its 110 passengers and six crew members were bumping across the turf beyond 7,543 feet of landing strip.
Whatever the aircraft, V-1 is the speed at which stopping harmlessly is impossible and the plane is committed to fly. “If you abort after that,” says Ameristar vice-president Stacy Muth, “you are absolutely guaranteed to damage the airplane and hurt somebody.”
The public docket quotes the company’s manual in much the same terms: “In many cases, rejected takeoffs at high speed have had far more negative or catastrophic results than would have been likely if the takeoffs had been continued.”
Blow an engine? Limp to the closest airport or return to the one you left. But this was different. The captain “brought the throttles to idle,” the report says, “initiated reverse thrust, applied braking, and then deployed the spoiler handle.”
In short: Panic stop.
The landing gear collapsed as the jetliner plowed through a chain-link fence, across an airport road and over a small ditch. Sliding down inflatable ramps or leaping a few feet from the wings after the airplane lurched to a halt on its belly, the players, cheerleaders and the rest of the travel party evacuated, with no injury more severe than a five-stitch cut on the leg of senior co-captain Derrick Walton Jr.
“Think of the other alternative,” says former Air Force and airline pilot David Powell, dean of the College of Aviation at Western Michigan University. “Think of what could have happened if they’d got it airborne and couldn’t control it.”
It would be a very different report on what’s remembered as a curiosity instead of a tragedy.
The apparent cause of what the NTSB refers to as a “rejected takeoff” was known within days.
A plane’s two elevators, left and right, straddle the tail and are the primary means of controlling pitch. The one on the right was stuck in a trailing-edge-down position, preventing a viable takeoff.
“You can’t see them,” Powell says; the elevators are nearly 150 feet behind the cockpit and 30 feet off the ground. The controls operated properly during pre-flight check, according to statements by one pilot, and “as long as you have freedom of movement, that’s what everybody has traditionally used.”
The MD-83 is a passenger adaptation of the DC-9, put in use from 1985-99. The manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas, merged with Boeing in 1997, so it was Boeing that issued a maintenance caution in 2015.
Cited in the report, it said that if there’s any possibility the plane has been subjected to winds of more than 75 mph, and the aircraft has not been parked facing the wind, all flight controls should be checked visually and also moved by hand.
More than 1 million Michiganians lost power that day as fierce winds uprooted trees — but the highest recorded gust was 68 mph at Detroit Metropolitan Airport about three hours before the attempted takeoff.
The report notes that Ameristar did not have a process or procedure to monitor winds, and it was unclear to the company’s flight planner whether the responsibility for tracking windspeed fell to the pilots or mechanics. The cargo director, meanwhile, excluded the pilots from responsibility during their off time because that would count against their allowable hours on duty.
“Pilots and maintenance should have both been thinking about that,” Powell says, even if they weren’t required to check.
In the cockpit, the pilots were aware of the high winds, but did not sound worried; eight miles away at Metro Airport, hundreds of flights were departing and arriving.
“Feel sorry for the regional guys that’re only going like an hour out of Metro and then coming back,” Radloff said. “You gotta fly in this all day.”
Gruseus seemed more worried about technicalities regarding the source and frequency of weather reports than with the weather itself. With the power out at Willow Run, he was dialing Metro on his cell phone for updates.
“I’m gonna, I’m gonna call (and) ask can we legally use this weather?” he said. “Because I’m not, I’m not gonna have the FAA come afterwards, how did you guys take off outta there?”
Ameristar’s Muth declined to make the pilots available for comment, explaining that they prefer not to speak publicly and even opted not to be identified until they were named in the NTSB report.
For her part, she says she feels as though her flight crew has been vindicated. Though winds were stiff at takeoff, 40 mph gusting to 56, the report appears to be more focused on the previous evening, before a white fuselage lay beached on a field of brown grass..
Muth expects a new safety guideline to come out of the incident — a lower inspection threshhold, perhaps, or “a way of preventing this altogether.”
Pending its arrival, Ameristar’s surviving MD-83 will remain earthbound. The other was hefted by crane, carried out of eyeshot at Willow Run, and stripped for parts.
Muth emphasizes that “I’m not suggesting the airplane as a whole is unsafe.” Ameristar still hauls cargo in the similar DC-9, and she boards MD-83s on other airlines.
But something crippled the elevator on a flight that nearly made martyrs of a basketball team. Something forced a pilot to go against reflex and training and make a wise decision that still could have ended in flames.
“We’re very proud of our pilots,” she says. That, she knows
What the NTSB finally decides — whether it agrees that Ameristar did everything right, or at least that everything it did was proper — she’ll have to wait to find out.