1999: Sorrow In The Skies

Veteran CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr looks back on 1999, a year of sorrow in the skies that included the deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr. and professional golfer Payne Stewart.
By any measure it's been a bad year in the skies. In fact, it's the worst since 1996 when U.S. aviation suffered the twin tragedies of ValuJet 592 and TWA 800.

1999 has been marked by four high-profile crashes involving two major jetliners and two private planes with famous passengers. All of the accidents happened for different reasons, and it may turn out that one was no accident at all. But there is a common thread running through these crashes - a thread that leads to the cockpit.

American Airlines Flight 1420
It was just before midnight on June 1 when American Airlines flight 1420 approached Little Rock, Arkansas, in a thunderstorm. The pilots were at the end of a 13-hour workday and this was to be the last stop. Controllers, concerned about the storm, issued constant weather updates and even radioed two wind shear alerts. But the captain of flight 1420 continued his approach.

The MD-80, with 145 people aboard, touched down in heavy cross winds, but instead of rolling to a stop, the jetliner kept going. The plane skidded off the end of the rain-slicked runway and crashed into a light tower. Eleven people, including the pilot who made the fatal decision to land, were killed. Thirty-five others were seriously injured.

John F. Kennedy Jr. Flight
Weather and pilot decisions were at the center of another headline-grabbing crash just six weeks later. When John F. Kennedy, Jr, his wife Caroline, and sister-in-law Lauren Bissette took off from New Jersey for Martha's Vineyard, they were late.

It was nearly dusk when Kennedy's Piper Saratoga took off and it was pitch dark as the plane approached Martha's Vineyard, an island off the Massachusetts coast. Kennedy, the pilot, was flying under Visual Flight Rules, which means he had to be able to see where he was going. Now, investigators believe that's exactly why the plane crashed killing all on board.

Kennedy likely became disoriented in the dark haze off the northeast coast - confused to the point that he may not have been able to tell up from down. It's a dangerous phenomenon called "spatial disorientation" that has claimed the lives of many experienced pilots over the years. Kennedy, a relative beginner with few nighttime flying hours, was no match for the conditions.

Payne Stewart Flight
October brought two of the most bizarre crashes of the jet age. The first involved a Lear Jet, military fighter planes and the champion of the 1999 US Open.

Golfer Payne Stewart, three other passengers and two pilots took off from Orlando on a flight to HoustonAlmost immediately something went wrong. Air traffic controllers watched with concern as the Lear Jet climbed above 45,000 feet and veered badly off course. When repeated radio calls went unanswered, fighter planes were sent to take a look.

Military pilots intercepted the Lear over Missouri and it was clear no one was piloting the airplane. The pilots and passengers apparently had passed out after the plane lost pressure. The autopilot kept the plane aloft, until it ran out of fuel and crashed in South Dakota.

Investigators now want to know why the pilots weren't able to save the plane from a depressurization. Did they check the emergency oxygen supply? Was it activated? Most importantly, were the pilots familiar enough with the plane to handle an emergency? The pilot-in-command was an Air Force veteran. But he'd only been certified to fly the Lear for a month.

Egyptair Flight 990
The deadliest crash of the year happened just six days later. EgyptAir flight 990, a Boeing 767 with 217 people aboard disappeared from radar and plunged into the Atlantic off Nantucket. Evidence to date supports a horrifying theory that the crash was no accident.

The flight data recorder revealed no problem with the airplane. And the cockpit voice recorder captured the chilling sound of a lone voice repeating a prayer just before the jet plunged in a near supersonic dive to the water. Investigators believe that voice belonged to Gamil al-Batouti, a co-pilot, who they suspect deliberately took the plane down.

The EgyptAir crash is a nightmarish aberration. Pilot suicide, if that's what it turns out to be, is among the rarest of causes for a crash. But, the other accidents of 1999 are symptomatic of an ongoing safety concern.

Pilots blister when confronted with statistics that show cockpit mistakes play a role in nearly three-quarters of all crashes. And pilots rightly point out that there have been many cockpit heroes who've saved crippled planes and their passengers from doom. But pilots are human and are only as good as their skills and their judgment. 1999 showed us once again that errors are inevitable.

Now, at a time when technology has made airplanes safer than ever before, the challenge is to find ways to ensure that the people who fly them are just as good.

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