WASHINGTON_Pilot error was a major contributor to a fatal accident at Chicago's Midway Airport during which a Southwest Airlines jet skidded through a barrier and hit several cars, killing a boy, a federal safety board concluded Tuesday.
National Transportation Safety Board member Steven Chealander said the Boeing 737's crew made a bad decision to land that day two years ago during a snowstorm, and probably should have diverted the flight.
The findings were the culmination of a more than six-hour NTSB hearing Tuesday on the Dec. 8, 2005 accident that led to 18 of the 103 airplane passengers and crew having minor injuries.
The plane slid off the end of a 6,500-foot runway, through the airport fence and into highway traffic. Joshua Wood, 6, of Leroy, Ind., was killed when the plane struck the car in which he was riding.
The NTSB said the probable cause of the accident "was the pilot's failure to use available reverse thrust in a timely manner to safely slow or stop the airplane after the landing."
The procedure reverses the thrust of the jet engines to aid in the slowing of the aircraft.
"The pilots' delay in deploying the thrust reversers cannot be attributed to mechanical or physical difficulties," the NTSB said in a summary of their findings.
Investigators blamed the problem on the accident being the first experience the pilots had with the airplane's autobrake system. But they also cited Southwest for failure to provide its pilots with clear and consistent guidance and training.
The Air Line Pilots Association said blame should not be focused only on the pilot, but on other factors including the weather and runway advisories.
"The (NTSB's) recommendations demonstrate that a range of causal factors contributed to the Midway accident," said Capt. Terry McVenes, ALPA's executive air safety chairman.
Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin said the airline has made changes in response to the accident and is looking into more improvements, such as better measuring runway conditions and relaying condition reports to pilots.
"One thing you have to remember is that it is a very safe aviation system that we have, and Southwest is a very safe airline," she said. "This has been an extraordinary circumstance we have learned from and we are all the better for it in the end.
Earlier this year, a settlement in a wrongful death suit filed by the Indiana parents of the accident victim was reached in Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago with Southwest Airlines. Financial details were not revealed.
Ronald Stearney Jr., the family's attorney, said Tuesday, "We expected that this would be the findings." He said conversation captured by the aircraft's cockpit voice recording showed that the pilots weren't properly trained in using the autobrake system.
The lawsuit also had argued that the flight crew should not have attempted to land in deteriorating weather conditions. "This was a landing where they didn't have any room for error," Stearney said. NTSB members argued over the degree that was the probable cause of the accident, with Chealander, a retired airlines pilot, contending it deserved to be considered more than just a contributing factor to the accident.
"The decision to land is what allowed these events to occur," he said.
The final conclusion of the board was that the pilots would have been able to stop the plane on the runway if they had commanded maximum reverse thrust promptly after touchdown and maintained maximum thrust to a full stop.
During the hearing, Kevin Renze, one of the NTSB investigators, said that by Southwest's standards for weather, the conditions at Midway were generally worse than fair.
"For the accident flight, I'd characterize it as worse than poor," he said.
Investigators said Southwest policy dictated that airliners should divert to another airport when weather conditions are poor and the tailwind is 5-knots per hour, as was the case at the time of the accident.
They said at least several other Southwest flights, in addition to the one in the accident, did not comply with company policy in landing at Midway earlier in the day.
NTSB investigator Katherine Lemos said there was no evidence pilots had knowingly violated company policy.
Bob Benzon, the investigator in charge, said the captain of Flight 1248 "said at one point those were the worst conditions he had ever landed in."
Board member Kitty Higgins voiced confidence that the crew was conscientious and had tried to do what was right but that they had no received "real time" information about the landing conditions.