NTSB examines crew behaviour in Lubbock ATR crash

Washington DC
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Pilot and first officer interaction during the of the 27 January crash of an ATR 42 cargo aircraft on approach to Lubbock, Texas drew attention of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) members and agency staff during the first of a two-day public hearing held on 22 September examining events leading up to the accident.

Empire Airlines was operating the ATR-42 (N902FX) owned by FedEx. The aircraft crashed 300ft short of the threshold on an instrument approach to Runway 17.

After departure from Dallas the aircraft encountered ice that Captain Rodney Holberston described as being moderate and bordering on severe at FL180 and descended to FL140.

At around 6,000ft the crew was advised of freezing drizzle conditions in Lubbock with a 500ft overcast ceiling, two miles visibility and a 10kt tailwind.

Once the crew received additional vectors due to a wind shift from 6,000ft to 5,000ft the captain selected the flaps for 15 degrees while the first officer had control of the aircraft.

After he noticed the flaps indicating zero he repositioned the flap handle several times and checked the circuit breakers with a flashlight while on approach. He opted then to place the flap handles in the retracted position to avoid inadvertent travel during approach.

The captain also noticed the aircraft was drifting off localizer and observed the first officer flying the approach when the aircraft should have been coupled to the ILS. In previous interviews with NTSB investigators Holberston said he was confused about the autopilot disconnecting, noting he had not heard an aural alert.

First officer Heather Cornell said in previous interviews with the board that the stick shaker activated at 1,000ft and apparently disengaged the autopilot. At 800ft Captain Holbertson asked if she wanted him to take the controls, and she agreed since he had "much more" experience with the aircraft".

Holberston says shortly after he took control the aircraft became uncontrollable with the terrain avoidance warning system issuing a "pull up" warning. The first officer told the captain the runway was in sight, and the stick shaker activated two additional times with captain calling for maximum RPM.

He then realised he had no lateral control and moments later the aircraft impacted the ground.

A portion of the first day of the hearings focused on Holberston's decision not to perform a go-around and his decision not to access the quick reference handbook instructions once the flap anomaly was detected.

Holberston in testimony today said he had the runway environment in sight, and explained he did not think reconfiguring the aircraft for a go-around was a "safe option at that time".

First officer Cornell also in testimony today said she understood Holberston's thought process at the time, noting in order to perform a go-around the aircraft would need to ascend into icing conditions it had just departed.

Newly-appointed NTSB chair Deborah Hersman highlighted recent discussion regarding sterile cockpit rules. However, she stated: "There was none of that here."

Although during previous NTSB interviews Empire director of operations Randy Lanfell voiced concern over how the flap asymmetry was handled, today he said suggesting that a go-around was a better course of action was "hard to say".

"Obviously the crew are here to with us to talk about it," he noted.