NTSB: Final cause of plane accident could take 18 months

Investigators interviewing pilots, crew, working to remove plane from water

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into why a Miami Air Boeing 737-800 slid into the St. Johns River could take up to 18 months to complete. The removal of the aircraft was delayed by at least a day because of rain and stormy weather conditions.

WATCH: Entire raw video of NTSB Sunday 430 p.m.press conference

NTSB investigators updated their investigation Sunday at 4:30 p.m. with the following information.

  • Left-hand thrust reverser on the plane was inoperable on 737-800 at the time of the accident. NTSB is looking thoroughly into thrust reversers.
  • Navy arranging for divers to remove pets from plane's cargo hold
  • The original plan was for pilots to land on a different runway in another direction by pilots requested to land on runway 10 which reduced the length of the runway to 7,800 feet.
  • Aircraft normally would land to the west but pilots requested a change in direction as well as runway.
  • Investigators are looking at the pilot's training, experience, fatigue and flight history.
  • NTSB is looking for any witness video of the 737 skidding off the runway to help in its probe.
  • Removal of the plane from the river was delayed by weather complications
  • The plane could be moved onto Navy property or a different facility. If they move plane far, they will likely use a barge and take extra care not to damage evidence.
  • Crews will have to empty out the fuel from the plane before it can be moved and they have begun the process.
  • Navy will allow some military jets to take off Monday but no planes will land at NAS Jax until wreckage is removed.
  • NTSB investigators don't know how much fuel has leaked into the river but booms are doing good job at containing fuel. 

So many questions remain about why the plane coming into Naval Air Station Jacksonville skidded into the St. Johns River but those questions may not be answered for quite some time.

The military-chartered jet with 143 people on board landed hard, then bounced and swerved as the pilot struggled to control it amid thunder and lightning, ultimately skidding off the runway and coming to a crashing halt in a river at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.

It meant chaos and terror for passengers in the Boeing 737 as the plane jolted back and forth and oxygen masks deployed, then overhead bins opened, sending contents spilling out.

But authorities said all the people onboard emerged without critical injuries Friday night, lining up on the wings as they waited to be rescued. Only a 3-month-old baby was hospitalized, and that was done out of an abundance of caution, officials said.

"I think it is a miracle," said Capt. Michael Connor, the base's commanding officer, hours after the plane landed. "We could be talking about a different story," he said.

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News4Jax spoke with the vice chairman of the NTSB, Bruce Landsberg, about why it could be such a lengthy process.

“We always go very thoroughly into these (investigations) and not nearly as fast as you would like to have them. We want to get it absolutely correct, but these things typically will take 12 to 18 months,” Landsberg said.
The NTSB investigation will look into the flight crew and the aircraft cabin crew, the aircraft itself, the airframe and the environment, including the airport. The weather and air traffic control issues are a big interest.

“The flight data recorder is off and it's up in our labs in Washington, D.C. and we get more than 1,000 parameters off of that, which will give us a tremendous amount of detail as to what actually happened,” said Landsberg. The NTSB will relay its findings but does not prescribe punishments if an individual was the cause of the accident.

“That's for the Federal Aviation Administration. Our job is strictly to investigate the accident, figure out what happened and to make recommendations to prevent the recurrence,” said Landsberg.

There are also questions about how the plane will be removed, either it will be pulled somehow back onto navy land, or put on a barge and sent down the river to a different facility.

"We’re going to be very careful about how we remove the aircraft, because we want to preserve it and all of the perishable evidence that goes along with that. So great care will be emphasized in that," said Landsberg.

The cockpit voice recorder is critical, specifically to hear what the pilots were talking about below 10,000 feet. Pilots are only allowed to talk about plane operations when they’re that low.​

We can get an idea possibly on what will be involved in removing the jet based on what happened around ten years ago after the "Miracle On The Hudson." That was in 2009 when the U.S. Airways flight landed on the Hudson River in New York City with no fatalities.

In that case, the plane was put on a barge using huge cranes to move it onto the barge. There were difficulties in that case, like a flooded fuselage forcing a delicate removal while the water drained.

The NTSB hopes to get the plane out of the water Monday so it can access the voice data recorder, which records conversations between crew members. Right now, the recorder is in the plane's tail section, which is underwater.


About the Authors:

Lifetime Floridian anchors weekends and reports weekdays on issues in Nassau and Baker counties and beyond.

Florida-born multi-media journalist pays special attention to issues in St. Johns County.