Aerial views of the crashed American Airlines Boeing 737 at the Norman Manley International Airport in Jamaica
By Caribbean News Now contributor
KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Almost five years after the event, the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority issued its final report
on Tuesday into the crash landing of an American Airlines (AA) Boeing 737-823 at the Norman Manley International Airport (NMIA) in Kingston on December 22, 2009.
According to the 297-page report, American Airlines Flight AA331, carrying 148 passengers, including three infants, and a crew of six, landed at NMIA in darkness at 10:22 pm EST. The aircraft touched down at approximately 4,100 feet on the 8,911 foot long runway in heavy rain and with a 14 knot tailwind.
The crew was unable to stop the aircraft on the remaining 4,811 feet of runway and it overran the end of the runway at 62 knots (71 mph) ground speed. The aircraft broke through a fence, crossed above a road located about 12 feet below the embankment at the end of the runway and came to an abrupt stop on the sand dunes and rocks between the road and the sea.
There was no post-crash fire. The aircraft was destroyed, its fuselage broken into three sections, while the left landing gear collapsed. The right engine and landing gear were torn off, the left wingtip was badly damaged and the right wing fuel tanks were ruptured, leaking jet fuel onto the beach sand.
Of the 148 passengers, 134 suffered minor or no injury, while 14 were seriously injured, though there were no life-threatening injuries. None of the flight crew and cabin crew was seriously injured, and they were able to assist passengers during the evacuation.
The flight crew told the inquiry into the incident that the aircraft experienced an abnormal lack of deceleration during braking, and both stated that they soon realized the aircraft would leave the runway.
The captain said he brought the reversers back as much as he could, but he felt like he was on ice as there was no deceleration, so he applied full manual braking. However, the flight crew was unable to stop the aircraft on the remaining runway.
Until a report of “runway wet” by the tower controller less than five minutes before landing, there was no mention of any runway condition report nor was any braking action report given.
The reports states that NMIA was not in compliance with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) airport services manual, which provides, “During adverse weather, airport operations will advise air traffic control of relevant surface conditions and should carry out such various checks that the weather may dictate.”
There was no evidence that the runway was examined by the personnel of AA, air traffic control (ATC), NMIA or any other organization at the airport during the heavy precipitation in the period preceding the time of the accident. There was no indication that any runway condition reports were generated, or disseminated to AA personnel from ATC, NMIA or any other organization in the period before the accident.
In a 60-point “Findings as to Causes and Contributing Factors”, the report states, among other items, that:
• The flight crew was not provided with an accurate and current report on the runway condition at Kingston, nor was it required;
• The flight crew was not aware of a standing water warning at Kingston;
• The flight crew’s situational awareness was incomplete and became degraded as the flight progressed;
• The flight crew decided to land in heavy rain on a wet runway in a tailwind close to the tailwind landing limit;
• The aircraft crossed the runway threshold 20 feet above the ideal height, and landed long;
• The flight crew members were possibly fatigued after being on duty for nearly 12 hours, and awake for more than 14 hours;
• The flight crew did not request a runway condition report or a braking action report from ATC and ATC did not alert the crew that no braking report had been received;
• ATC did not inform AA331 that the runway was wet until less than five minutes before the aircraft landed nor inform AA331 of the reported “heavy rain”;
• NMIA did not perform a runway surface condition inspection before AA331 landed, nor was this part of their procedures;
• The investigation indicated that there may have been some weaknesses in the FAA oversight of the AA Boeing 737 operations related to tailwind landing training, and approval of an increased tailwind landing limit;
• The investigation indicated that there were some gaps in the management and operational control of American Airlines, specifically runway condition reporting, and flight crews following recommended procedures.
In a somewhat bizarre and ultimately futile attempt at “spin” at the time, what was described as a “horror crash landing” by the international press should have instead been referred to as an “incident” and not a “crash”, the official Jamaica Information Service (JIS) told the local and regional media.
According to a technical officer at the Airports Authority of Jamaica (AAJ), the term “incident” should have been used as there were no fatalities, notwithstanding the many pictures then published of the crashed aircraft lying in pieces on the adjacent beach.
The accident in Jamaica is not dissimilar to an event that occurred at Hewanorra International Airport in Saint Lucia on Christmas Eve last year, when a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330-300 touched down on a flooded runway and suffered substantial damage to its landing gear.
According to aviation experts, failure to issue a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) and/or an Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) when runway conditions are compromised is a common problem in the Caribbean.
Responsibility for the state of the runway, and the timely reporting of any actual or potential hazards, rests with the airport operator and this information should be forwarded to air traffic control for transmission to the aircraft.
Clearance to land indicates to the pilot that the runway is safe to land on and air traffic control must not issue such clearance in the event that a hazardous runway condition is known.