Midway Radios Crackled Warnings About Runway Condition

Some pilots and air-traffic controllers were concerned about the worsening snowstorm and discussed whether they could change the runway configuration to escape a tailwind.

Radio communications recorded just before last week's fatal accident at Midway Airport reveal that some pilots and air-traffic controllers were concerned about the worsening snowstorm and discussed whether they could change the runway configuration to escape a tailwind that increased the stopping distance of planes landing, the Tribune has learned.

But the only possible runway switch at Midway would have caused an air-traffic logjam, curtailing the use of a major departure runway at O'Hare International Airport about 15 miles away, officials said. Swapping runway operations also would have added to the serious weather-related flight delays at both airports.

Only one Midway runway was open Thursday night when a Southwest Airlines plane skidded across the airfield and smashed through a jet-engine blast barrier and a perimeter fence, striking cars on a busy street. Joshua Woods, a 6-year-old Indiana boy who was in one of the cars, was killed, and 10 other people were hurt.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating why the Federal Aviation Administration, the Chicago Department of Aviation and the airlines serving Midway did not implement a runway plan that would have boosted safety by putting a headwind against the noses of planes landing, investigators said.

"Our air-traffic group is looking at the decision-making process and how they decided which runway to use and which ones not to use," safety board spokesman Keith Holloway said Sunday. "We are also examining the responses between the pilots and the air-traffic controllers and what they viewed as the conditions of the runway."

The general rule to always try to land and take off into the wind is one of the first lessons a pilot receives, and many airlines mandate it if winds are strong or other conditions are present. A plane moves slower over the ground when landing against the wind, decreasing the distance it needs to stop. In a headwind, a plane also encounters more airflow over the wings to help produce lift on takeoffs.

"I find it hard to believe that any airline pilot would knowingly land in such a tailwind under any conditions, and most certainly not at Midway on a slippery runway," said Tom Bunn, a retired captain who flew for United Airlines and Pan Am for 30 years.

Air-traffic radio tapes show that at least several pilots Thursday night asked if the option were available to land into a headwind to help slow aircraft instead of being buffeted by a 10-m.p.h. tailwind that buffeted the plane at an angle, said sources close to the NTSB investigation.

Investigators will look at whether visibility rules set by the FAA for Midway permitted the use of a different landing configuration.

The pilots of the Southwest plane, Flight 1248 from Baltimore, reported a normal approach to Midway and they did not request a change in runway, said Robert Benzon, the safety board's investigator-in-charge for the accident.

The Midway runway in use at the time of the accident is known by two names--31 Center on a northwest approach and 13 Center on a southeast approach.

Arriving planes Thursday were put on a course to land on 31 Center, despite a 10-m.p.h. tailwind that periodically gusted to higher speeds, safety board investigators said.

The tailwind, the fair-to-poor braking condition of the runway and a delay by the Southwest pilots in activating the engine thrust-reversers on the Boeing 737-700 are being examined as the safety board works to determine the probable cause of the accident, Benzon said.

One of the lawyers representing the family of Joshua Woods on Sunday blamed the Southwest pilots for choosing to land at Midway under miserable weather conditions. He said the plane should have approached the runway from the opposite direction or the pilots should have diverted the flight to another airport.

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