Several witnesses said the Southwest Airlines Flight 1455 came in too steep and too fast Sunday night, overshooting the runway at the Burbank airport and skidding onto the street, where it hit a car and stopped just 50 feet from a gas station.
For the 142 passengers and crew coming from Las Vegas, it was the luckiest part of the trip. No one died. Fifteen people, including the pilot, suffered only minor injuries.
"It was going too fast. It started to feel like it was tipping," said Lara Gorman, a passenger. "And then I felt like a crashing and then I closed my eyes and we had stopped."
"Happy to be alive," said Eric Ley, another passenger. And yet another, Jodi Targon, could only say, "Like Jell-O...legs are like Jell-O. Pretty scary."
"It was very frightening," said Bartan Edzhuryan, a witness. "We were scared like hell, you know? I thought it was gonna blow up. Blow up the gas station. Everything."
But NTSB spokesman Preston Hicks told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Monday that the plane was "within the bounds of where you'd normally land."
Aviation safety experts say airports like Burbank, in densely populated areas, are unforgiving to pilots who land fast and long. Michael Barr, director of the University of Southern California's aviation safety program explains why: "[The pilot's] gonna use up, due to speed and distance all the space he's got at the other end of the runway absolutely no margin for error."
The crippled jet was moved off the street Monday, away from the gas station where owner Denny Natanzi remembered the call he got from a shaken employee. "First I thought he was kind of joking. I said, What? He came to buy gas?' He said no, it was in the station."
Investigators are now examining flight data recorders to pinpoint what went wrong. Southwest Airlines' use of a sophisticated dashboard display is one focus of the investigation.
Sources told The Dallas Morning News that National Transportation Safety Board officials will be interested in determining what role, if any, that heads-up displays commonly found in fighter jets played in Sunday's mishap.
Possible pilot error, the short runway at Burbank International Airport and the speed of the jet are other factors listed in the investigation into what Southwest called the worst accident in its 29-year history.
Until Sunday night, both the pilot and the plane had clean records.
Dallas-based Southwest was the first major air carrier to install heads-up displays on the dashboard in front of the captain's seat on mst of its jets.
A pilot using such a display can see an electronic image of the runway superimposed over the view of the actual runway. It shows throughout a normal approach exactly where the airplane will touch down for the speed it is traveling.
On Monday, several Southwest pilots said they routinely use the heads-up display while landing, particularly at night and in bad weather.
"It removes the guesswork," one pilot who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Morning News. "If you follow the heads-up display, it takes you right where you need to be."