Waking Up About Pilot Fatigue

investigation information about american airlines flight 1420 little rock
Tired pilots are on the radar screen of the nation's top transportation safety official.

Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, wants to examine whether new rules are needed to prevent pilot fatigue in the wake of last year's fatal crash in Little Rock, Ark. The NTSB has resumed hearings on the June 1 crash of American Airlines Flight 1420. Eleven people were killed and 110 were injured when the plane went off the end of the runway, broke apart, and caught fire.

Pilot fatigue and poor weather are among the factors that investigators are weighing as possible causes of the crash. Capt. Richard Buschmann, the pilot who died in the crash, was approaching the 14-hour company fly-time limit when the plane tried to land in heavy rain and high winds.

Also pushing the time limit was co-pilot Michael Origel, who survived the crash with a broken leg. In NTSB testimony on Thursday, Origel said the crew had been warned of wind shears and a strong storm before landing, but added he would have liked a better description of the storm.

NTSB Chairman Hall said Thursday that the Little Rock investigation in particular prompted his concern about pilot fatigue in general.

"Fatigue and its effects on flight-crew performance has been and continues to be a growing concern for the aviation community," he said.

Even if fatigue is ultimately not found to be the cause of the Little Rock crash, Hall added it "is my intention in this hearing to look at the larger picture and explore more precisely the dimensions of the problem."

Also on Thursday, American Airlines told the NTSB that it's revising policies on avoiding thunderstorms.

Robert Baker, vice chairman of American's parent company AMR, said the changes are the result of the carrier's own post-crash review. Baker said some changes - such as a new no-fault policy for pilots who back out of flights because of fatigue - are already in place.

"We have said to our pilots in no uncertain terms, `If you feel you are unable to perform because of fatigue, then you are off the trip at your request with no recourse from the company,'" he said, but added few pilots are taking advantage of that new policy.

NTSB lead investigator Greg Feith said long days were not unusual for American Airline pilots, according to complaints made to the federal agency.

"We have received...numerous people calling us or providing us letters that people are flying tired -- that American Airlines pilots are still on the edge of fatigue and management isn't
Feith said.

By the first anniversary of the crash, Baker said the airline plans to modify its policy for approaches and landings, as well as give pilots more training on interpreting radar. The airline also calls for all of its crew members to attend a fatigue countermeasures program by January 2002.

"We have learned some things. We've got some work to do," said Baker. "W will be a better airline for it,"

As the NTSB hearings into the Little Rock crash resume, CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr continues an investigation into airline safety.

Were the Flight 1420 pilots' judgment clouded by fatigue leading up to the crash -- or did they feel pressured "to get the passengers where they wanted to go?"

"They hurried; they landed fast; they slid off the runway; and people died," says former pilot Steve Fredrick.

Frederick has no doubt the pilots of Flight 1420 felt pressure. He used to feel it himself, Frederick says. And he claims he was fired after publicly raising questions about the commuter plane he flew for American Eagle.

Some of that pressure comes from passengers who hate delays - and from government regulators who publicly rank airlines by their on-time performance.

Robert Baker of American Airlines concedes his company does keep a list of chronically late flights. "We call it the shame list," he says.

The list is passed along to pilots, he says. But, Baker insists there's no pressure and no penalty for pilots who turn down or divert flights for safety reasons.

"I don't believe that American's professional pilots are ever going to trade off being on time vs. the safety of the operations," Baker says.

Read Bob Orr's Jan. 26 report in Frantic Descent In Little Rock.