Frantic Descent In Little Rock

Evidence brought out during the first day of federal hearings Wednesday makes it clear that American Airlines flight 1420 was in grave danger from the moment the pilots decided to land in a gusty thunderstorm, CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports.

National Transportation Safety Board animation of the plane's final moments shows the jetliner carrying 145 passengers and crew was badly off course as it approached the Little Rock airport. It was the deadliest crash of 1999 on U.S. soil: 11 people were killed, including the pilot, Capt. Richard Buschmann, and 89 were injured.

The cockpit voice tape reveals the pilots struggled to find the runway during almost the entire descent. One of the two, it isn't clear who, says: "Aw (expletive), we're off course." Co-pilot Michael Origel adds: "We're way off."

Then Buschmann: "I can't see (the runway)."

Origel: "Got it?"

Buschmann: "Yeah I got it."

The plane was only 100 feet off the ground.

In his first public testimony, Origel told investigators he suggested Buschmann abort the landing.

Origel testified that he told Buschmann, "Go around," indicating he wanted the pilot to abort the landing.

However, an NTSB source close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity said experts reviewed the cockpit recording dozens of times, listening specifically for the statement, and heard nothing.

"I clearly remember I did make a 'Go around' statement. I remember that very clearly," Origel told the board Wednesday.

In fact Buschmann, a senior chief pilot, continued on -- despite heavy rain and two windshear alerts from air traffic controllers.

The plane was not properly aligned when it touched down on the slick runway. For some reason, the plane's spoilers, the wing panels that are opened to help slow an airplane, did not deploy as they should have. The pilots lost control, and the jet began to slide.

The plane skidded off the end of the runway and slammed into a landing light tower. "All I remember was this explosion of glass and debris from the left side," Origel said.

The pilots of flight 1420 may not take all of the blame. Federal investigators are concerned that poor training, lax safety oversight, and fatigue each may have played a role in the crash. Now the NTSB will pose some tough questions to American Airlines. Chief among them, why has American had six accidents in six years, all apparently involving mistakes in the cockpit?

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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