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.

"That night demanded perfection," said Ronald A. Stearney Sr., the attorney hired by Leroy and Lisa Woods of Leroy, Ind. "This was a terrible night to be landing."

Other aircraft landed safely at Midway before Flight 1248 skidded and crashed. Safety board investigators are just beginning what is expected to be a yearlong investigation examining issues including the weather, snow-removal on the runway, aircraft performance, mechanical systems and human factors.

Using the 13 Center end of the 6,522-foot runway to land would have created a 10-m.p.h. headwind, increasing aircraft braking power significantly on the snow-topped runway.

An added benefit would be a slightly uphill landing on 13 Center, which is 5 feet lower than the 31 Center end of the runway, according to the FAA's Midway Airport diagram.

The Southwest plane's airspeed was 143 m.p.h. just before touching down at Midway, the NTSB said. The plane's flight data recorder clocked its speed on the ground at 152 m.p.h.

The tailwind at the time varied between 9 and 10 m.p.h., the safety board said. It is not considered a strong wind, but it magnifies the challenge of landing on a snow- and ice-slicked runway.

A tailwind that is 10 percent of the landing airspeed will increase the landing distance about 21 percent, according to the FAA Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge.

FAA officials, air-traffic controllers and city aviation officials said that controllers and the supervisor in the Midway tower considered landing planes on the 13 Center end of the runway.

But that would have required receiving agreement from the FAA radar facility in Elgin, where controllers handle approaching and departing aircraft in the Chicago area, as well as a signoff from the FAA's national air-traffic command center in Herndon, Va.

Redirecting Midway arrivals to 13 Center would have interrupted the pipeline of planes approaching and departing the Southwest Side airport while flight patterns were reconfigured during the busy evening travel period.

In addition, using 13 Center to land in bad weather would require extending the final approach pattern to the airport to about 10 miles, affecting the use of Runway 22 Left for departures at O'Hare, officials said.

While making the runway change increases the controller and pilot workloads, it is a common request made by pilots uncomfortable about the landing.

"It's not unusual to get pilot requests for a different runway based on the wind, the type of aircraft and the runway configuration we are on," said Ron Adamski, president of the controllers union at Midway. "If the pilots are adamant about it, air-traffic control is not going to be put in a position of saying no."

The policies of many airlines require pilots to land on a different runway or divert to another airport to avoid tailwinds. Pilots at Northwest Airlines often request different runways at Midway based on wind, cloud ceilings or conditions at the airport, Midway controllers said.

Southwest Airlines did not return phone calls or pages Sunday seeking comment.

Tribune staff reporter Deborah Horan contributed to this report


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