WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Positive changes for aviation result from local air disasters

Posted May 14

Photo by Tony Rice

— Survivors and families of victims of American Airlines flights 3378 and 3379 gathered in Cary on Saturday to dedicate a new memorial at Carpenter Park. The ceremony and the lasting memorial helped provide closure for those affected by the air tragedies, but are just as important for survivors, victims' families and the rest of the flying public, in understanding what happened and how it can be prevented in the future. 

While both accidents were determined by the National Transportation Safety Board to be the result of pilot failure, training procedures and airline management were found to be to blame as well. Pilots may be in command of an aircraft during critical takeoff and landing periods, but it takes a team to run an airline safely. 

American Eagle Flight 3378

American Eagle Flight 3378, operated by AVAir crashed at 9:25 p.m. on February 19, 1988 during initial climb out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport en route to Richmond, Va. The Swearingen SA227-AC Metro III turboprop plane, barely 300 feet in the air came down in the Brier Creek Reservoir about half a mile from the end of runway 23 with wreckage extending up the shoreline about 425 feet into a wooded area to the east of what is now the Hyatt Place and Cambria Suites hotels near the airport. None of the 10 passengers or two crew members aboard survived.

Though there was a warm front moving through the area with light drizzle and fog at the time and ground visibility was limited to about 1/4 mile, the weather was not found to be a contributing factor.

After a 10 month investigation and subsequent petitions by the Air Line Pilots Association to adjust the findings, the final probable cause issued by the NTSB was “a failure of the flight crew to maintain a proper flight path. Contributing to the accident were the ineffective management and supervision of flight crew training and flight operations, and ineffective Federal Aviation Administration surveillance of AVAir.” 

The report also expressed concerns about AVAir’s recent rapid expansion, which ultimately resulted in bankruptcy. The airline had emerged from Chapter 11 just two weeks earlier following a $750,000 emergency loan from American Eagle. The Senate House Subcommittee on Aviation also questioned whether satisfying a bankruptcy court was sufficient for a financially troubled airline to resume flying.

The NTSB recommended:

  • Increased surveillance of airlines experiencing financial distress or rapid growth by inspectors.
  • An update of the aircraft’s manual and notification to pilots of the more than 600 Swearingen SA227-AC Metro III’s to clarify how flight crews should treat an illuminated stall avoidance system fault.
  • Airlines aren't using pilot flight crew members while the pilot has a “known medical deficiency”, this was the result of reported nausea the captain had mentioned to a close friend early that morning.

Today, the FAA treats financial problems at an airline as a red flag for safety. In 2011, hours into massive parent company AMR’s bankruptcy, the FAA ordered increased random inspection of American and American Eagle aircraft at the gate, in maintenance hangars, and of spare-parts inventories.

American Eagle Flight 3379

American Eagle Flight 3379, operated by Flagship Airlines, arriving from the Piedmont Triad airport near Greensboro, crashed on approach to RDU runway 05L at 6:34 p.m. on December 13, 1994. The British Aerospace 3201 Jetstream 32 indicated engine failure, the aircraft began to veer left, reduce airspeed, and increase its rate of descent. The flight crew appears to have regained control, but it was too late. Flight 3379 came down in a thick stand of trees 4.5 miles from the end of the runway in a thickly wooded area in Morrisville, 1 mile southwest of today’s NC-540/NC-55 interchange. Fifteen people, including both pilots, died in the crash; five passengers survived with serious injuries. 

Surface visibility was 3 miles at the time with light rain and fog. The temperature was 38 degrees, raising questions about rime icing, also known as freezing fog. Other flights in the vicinity did not report is, however.

That part of Morrisville is a very different place today than it was in 1994. Today, the crash site is in the backyard of homes near the corner of Addenbrock Drive and Delaronde Lane in the McCrimmon At the Park community. In 1994, first responders were forced to hike a mile from Old Maynard Road, to reach the crash site in dark, rainy conditions.

The Apex Rescue Squad was on scene within minutes and were soon joined by the Morrisville Fire Department who assisted in extinguishing the fire and removing survivors via 4-wheel drive vehicles for transportation to area hospitals. Ultimately a temporary 1.5 mile road was built to assist investigators in reaching the scene.

Following an 11 month investigation the NTSB reported the cause of the crash to be the result of “the captain's improper assumption that an engine had failed and subsequent failure to follow approved procedures for engine failure, single-engine approach and go-around, and stall recovery. Contributing to the cause of the accident was the failure of AMR Eagle/Flagship management to identify, document, monitor, and remedy deficiencies in pilot performance and training.”

The NTSB recommended:

  • Airlines, train flight crews to identify and properly respond to engine failures and reduced power conditions that were less clear than situations than current training focuses on.
  • Review of the organizational structure of FAA surveillance of American Eagle and its carriers to focus on principal inspectors there.
  • Upgrade of the aircraft's Ground Proximity Warning System, which alerts pilots of imminent danger of flying into the ground to a more comprehensive Flight Profile Advisory System, which also warns the pilot when deviating from glide slope or path the aircraft follows when landing.

While airlines often retire flights numbers involved in fatal crashes, American continues to keep the flight numbers.  AA3378 offers daily service between Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Roswell International Air Center. AA3379 most recently flew between Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Waco Regional Airport.

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