Sixteen minutes before the crash, air traffic controllers issued the first of multiple weather alerts. "American 1420, Little Rock approach, said a controller, "roger we have a thunderstorm just northwest of the airport moving through the area now."
The copilot acknowledged the warning: "Yeah we can see the lightning."
The McDonnell-Douglas MD-82, inbound from Dallas with 145 people aboard, continued its approach. Conditions deteriorated and controllers issued a wind shear alert. Heavy rains made it difficult for the pilots to see the runway.
"There's a cloud between us and the airport," said the copilot. "We just lost the field"
The plane then made a series of turns as the pilots locked on to the runway using instruments, but the weather only got worse.
"We have heavy rain on the airport," the tower warned the pilots. "The visibility is less than a mile."
A second wind shear alert was issued, but the pilots pressed on with the landing. There was no talk about going to a different airport.
Little Rock controllers cleared the flight to land. The plane's copilot acknowledged the tower's instructions: "American 1420, thanks."
That was the last radio call from the jet. The MD-82 touched down in strong crosswinds, skidded off the end of the rain-slicked runway, hit a light standard and caught fire.
Compounding the crash, it took emergency crews 13 minutes to find the wreckage.
Now, investigators want to know why it took so long to discover the crash. But more importantly, why the pilots decided to force a landing in the face of a dangerous thunderstorm.
Beyond the weather factor, investigators are reported to be looking into whether the pilots might have neglected to set the spoilers, panels on the wings that pop up to slow the plane down on landing.
Another question is whether fatigue was a factor. The co-pilot, who survived with a broken leg, had been awake for 16 1/2 hours and on duty more than 13 hours the day of the crash.
The FAA would not comment on the contents of the transcript because an investigation is under way. The National Transportation Safety Board has scheduled a hearing for Jan. 26-28 in Little Rock to review details of the incident.