Hot Section Torque: FAA must focus on preventing overrun crashes

 - January 28, 2010, 4:29 AM

The underwear bomber’s abortive attempt to blow up a Northwest/Delta flight from Amsterdam to Detroit quickly overshadowed aviation’s other lucky break this past Christmas season–American Flight 331 from Miami to Kingston, Jamaica, which slid off a rain-soaked runway, breaking the fuselage in three places and injuring scores of people. Since no one died on American Flight 331–fortunately–and perhaps because the accident involved mostly foreigners in a foreign country, the 24/7 news cycle soon shifted to the failed Christmas Day terrorist bombing of the Northwest flight into the U.S. and the nonstop finger pointing of who was responsible for the security lapses that nearly allowed it to succeed.

While the mainstream media is otherwise distracted, those of us involved with aviation safety–as opposed to security–need to focus on why we haven’t done more to prevent the most preventable of accidents: runway overruns. No, we will never be able to prevent weather conditions conducive to hydroplaning or skidding off a runway; the wet runway and tailwind surely contributed to the American accident in Jamaica, much as slippery conditions and a tailwind surely contributed to Southwest’s runway overrun at Midway in December 2005. Nor will we ever be able fully to mitigate the effects of fatigue and other factors on pilot decision-making when it comes to landing in adverse weather conditions.

But what we can do–as I have written and spoken about before–is prevent an accident after a runway overrun. While we can’t completely prevent the incidence of runway overruns, it’s clear that we can almost totally mitigate the effects. The technology exists in the form of crushable concrete that absorbs the energy of an aircraft hurtling on it and slows it down in such a way that there is no damage to the aircraft and, therefore, no injuries to passengers. Crushable concrete or arrestor beds are a relative bargain; unlike runway safety areas they generally require no land acquisition. In addition, while crushable concrete is more expensive than regular concrete, the cost pales in comparison to the loss of an aircraft, such as the almost new 737 that was destroyed in Jamaica, and of course the costs, pain and suffering of passengers injured or killed in overrun accidents.

While many overrun accidents result in the total loss of the aircraft, aircraft lucky enough to overrun runways with crushable concrete fare significantly better, with little or no damage. Compare the American Airlines MD-80 overrun in Little Rock, Ark., in June 1999 to the May 2003 Gemini MD-11 cargo flight that overran the runway at JFK. In the former, which is eerily similar to the Jamaica accident, the American MD-80 landed in thunderstorms, slid off the runway and crashed through a fence and down an embankment, breaking in three parts and stopping just short of the water’s edge before catching fire. Eleven passengers and crewmembers were killed and the aircraft was totaled. The Gemini MD-11 overran its runway and ended up mired in crushable concrete with little or no damage to the aircraft or cargo and no injuries to the crew.

Or consider the runway overruns of the January 1982 World Airways DC-10 flight into Boston Logan Airport, or the September 1989 USAir 5050, which aborted takeoff at La Guardia, the May 1999 American Eagle Saab 340 or the July 2006 business jet landing at Greenville Downtown Airport in South Carolina with a probable malfunction of the antiskid system. The World Airways aircraft slid off an icy runway in poor visibility and broke apart in the water. Two passengers died. The USAir 737 aborted its takeoff roll but was unable to stop on La Guardia’s short, wet runway before crashing into a pier and breaking into three parts, one section remaining partially submerged in Bowery Bay. Two people were killed and numerous injured. The Saab 340 at JFK and the business jet at Greenville overran runways equipped with arrestor beds. Those aircraft escaped virtually unscathed, along with their passengers and crews.

It’s clear that crushable concrete works, but airports have been slow to install it, except after an accident makes the need obvious and the public or political outcry demands it. A few airports have been proactive and they deserve to be applauded. But the FAA has refused to mandate arrestor beds even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that they can prevent aircraft damage and injury or loss of life. Maybe if the administration comes up with a second round of stimulus funds, airports can grab a portion of those funds for runway-end arrestor beds, improve safety and put some construction workers back to work. Sounds like a win-win to me. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN