The valiant efforts by the Dawn Potter and the ground crew working the departure of Chautauqua Airlines flight 5019 from Dubuque, Iowa to Chicago O'Hare on a windy morning of 3 April were in vain.
Potter was at the controls of a jetbridge that unbeknownst to her, was being controlled not by the dials in front of her at the operator station, but by the gusty wind conditions ruling the morning - and by a modification the airport neglected to inform her of, nor train her to deal with.
She pulled the jet bridge away after flight attendants on American Connection Embraer ERJ135 (N377SK) closed the main cabin door, but before pilots started the engines. Soon after there was a 20in gash in the fuselage of the American Connection Embraer ERJ135 (N377SK).
Descriptions of the events that followed from the NTSB docket tell a much more frightening experience than the picture reveals, and one that we'll find out at the end, was completely avoidable despite a chorus of ramp workers, pilots, flight attendants and others trying their best.
"I'm guessing I was at least 25 feet away. I stopped working the joystick on the jet bridge," said Potter, in the NTSB report. "I was looking out the window and saw there was movement. Either the aircraft or the jet bridge was moving and I felt it was too quick for the ground to have kicked the flight. I realized it was the jetbridge and myself sailing right at the plane."
Jolene, another ramp worker, soon came to Potter's aid.
"I noticed the jetbridge seemed like it was drifting back towards the aircraft. It was obvious that Tammy and Anthony [other ramp workers] had also seen the same thing happening, because they went to the front corner of the bridge and were holding their hands on it, trying to hold the jetbridge from rolling any further," writes Jolene.
She went up the external stairs of the jetbridge to help Potter at the controls.
"I then went to the control panel and took over the controls to see if I could stop the malfunction," she says. She noted that the jetbridge's wheels still turned under joystick control, but the wind was overriding the control inputs.
"I pushed the emergency stop button and still the jetbridge continued moving. I turned the key/power off and it still continued moving," she said "I tried the emergency stop and the joystick again and still, the wind kept forcing the jetbridge back towards the aircraft."
"However by this time, the jetbridge had gained momentum with the wind pushing it and it was moving very fast....I was praying that they [ramp workers Anthony and Tammy] were all out of the way as I could not stop the jetbridge from impacting the aircraft..."
From his vantage point on the ground, Anthony may have been able to help, but there was mass communications confusion. "From what I could tell, agent Potter stopped the jetbridge with the joystick but the jetbridge kept moving away and towards the aircraft," he recalled. "At this point, [Jolene] had gone to the cab to assist [Potter]."
"Agent Schebler [Tammy] and I were standing on the ground trying to communicate between both the flight crew and the agents in the jetbridge. Captain Wilkes [the ERJ pilot] was telling us to chock something, but I couldn't tell if he meant the plane or the jetbridge..."
"About a minute later, there was a very strong gust of wind came across the ramp...," he writes.
The sight of the incoming structure must have been a frightening sight from the cockpit. From the NTSB report: "When [the captain] saw that the wind caught the jet bridge and it was apparent that it would strike the airplane, he and the first officer left the cockpit and entered the main cabin." He ultimately decided that no evacuation was necessary.
The sad part about this tale is what the NTSB found during the investigation.
- The airport manager reported that the jet bridge brake system was deactivated during the winter months for the last two years since the brakes routinely would ice up and keep the jet bridge from operating
- He reported that it had not provided any problems until the day of the incident when the strong winds and direction of the winds combined to make it an unsafe situation
- According to the airport manager, the Emergency Stop was inoperable when the brakes were deactivated
- When the Emergency Stop button was pushed, the brakes would not engage.
- Pushing the Emergency Stop button also cut the power to the control panel so moving the joystick would have no effect
- The airport manager reported that the jet bridge brake system was scheduled to be activated the day prior to the incident, but the technician working on the system was unable to get it activated
- An electrician was scheduled to make the necessary repairs to activate the system on Monday, which was the day after the incident occurred
- The gate agents who operated the jet bridge during the incident had attended recurrent training in November or December of 2008
- They had not received any training on the jet bridge since, although they routinely operated that jet bridge during their normal duties
- They were trained on the jet bridge when the brake system operated normally
- They did not receive training on the jet bridge when the brake system was deactivated.
All's well that ends well?
NTSB: The airport manager reported that the brakes have now been activated, and the jet bridge will no longer have the brakes deactivated during the winter months.