Midway Radios Crackled Warnings About Runway Condition

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.

"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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