Why did pilot request runway change before crash landing at NAS Jax?

Experienced pilot, flight instructor calls landing dangerous given conditions

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As a Boeing 737 jet remains in shallow water at the end of a Naval Air Station Jacksonville's runway after crashing through the seawall and into the river Friday night, we're learning more about the events that led up to the crash landing.

The National Transportation Safety Administration Board had said pilots of the transport flight from Guantanamo Bay requested a last-minute change to the runway where they would be landing during heavy weather.

A recording of air traffic radio traffic captured the exchange with the pilot of the Air Miami International fight, designated Biscayne 293.

Controller: "Biscayne 293, just talked to Navy JAX tower. He said both runways look pretty bad, pretty socked in, showing moderate to heavy precipitation east and west of the airport. Do you want to try RNAV 28?"
Pilot: "Looks better. And when I get closer, I’ll check how it is."

LISTEN: Air traffic control exchanges as Air Miami flight enters Jacksonville airspace 
WATCH: Pilot communications released

The 9,000-foot-long runway where the chartered jet eventually landed was essentially limited to 7,800 feet since there was a wire barrier set up to recover Navy aircraft in instances they couldn't land on a carrier during training, said Bruce Landsberg, vice chairman of the NTSB.

"We don't know what they were thinking or why they made that choice," Landsberg said at a news conference. "That will be one of the things we look to find out."

Landsberg said the plane's maintenance logs showed a left-hand thrust reverser that was inoperative. Thrust reversers are used to divert thrust from the engine, but they typically aren't used in calculating a plane's performance, Landsberg said.

Reverse thrust can be used to help an aircraft come to a stop.

Capt. Wayne Ziskal, a 50-year veteran pilot who teaches at Jacksonville University’s School of Aviation said the plane came in for a landing during moderate to heavy rain, poor visibility and a tailwind of nearly 20 mph. Planes try to land against the wind, not with the wind behind it.

Ziskal estimated the crew tried to land with a ground speed of more than 200 mph -- dangerous given the conditions.

"80% of accidents have a human factors component to them," Ziskal said. "When we start talking about human factors, we start talking about decision-making, critical thinking -- all the things that go into why you made the decision and why you acted the way that you did."

Ziskal said the pilots always have the option to “go around" -- pull out of a landing and circle back. If conditions are still bad, they can choose to land at another airport.

Investigators have retrieved the flight data recorder, but the NTSB investigators said they hope a cockpit voice recorder helps them answer that question. They have been unable to recover it from the tail of the plane because it is still underwater.

Investigators also asked anyone who shot video of the plane landing to share it with the NTSB.

There were no serious injuries on the flight from a military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, although almost two dozen of the 143 passengers and crew members sought medical attention for minor injuries and three pets died when the cargo hold in the belly of the plane went under water.

Capt. Michael Connor, the base's commanding officer, said all passengers had left the base Sunday on their way to their scheduled destinations.

Some aircraft will be allowed to depart the base and be relocated so that pilots can continue with their training, but air traffic in and out of Naval Air Station Jacksonville is effectively closed until the plane is removed from the river, Connor said.

The NTSB investigators are still deciding when and how to relocate the plane off the base, which would require the use of a barge.

"How the aircraft is positioned now certainly gives you limitations on a good thorough assessment," said NTSB investigator John Lovell. "We are not aware of the extent of the damage under the waterline because it can't be seen."

All fuel needs to be removed before the plane can be moved, and that effort was complicated by the aircraft being partially submerged in the river, as well as stormy weather on Sunday, Landsberg said.

Officials said they didn't know how many gallons of fuel have spilled into the river, but engineers were using booms to contain the fuel and skimmers to vacuum up contaminants.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection Agency is urging anyone who sees an oil slick or distressed wildlife to call its emergency hotline number: 800-320-0519.  

Divers on Sunday were sent into the plane's cargo area to search and remove a handful of pets that had been unable to be rescued because of safety concerns. The investigators didn't say outright whether the animals were dead, but the pets would have been submerged for almost two days.

Cellphone video from passenger Darwing Silva captured the immediate, uncertain moments after the chartered jet landed.

A passenger shouted "Watch out! Watch out!" as other passengers and crew members cautiously walked out on a wing of the plane. Another passenger shouted, "Baby coming through!" and a man can be seen holding an infant in his arms as he walks along with the other passengers in yellow life jackets getting drenched by rain.

Silva said those passengers initially were told Friday the aircraft might not be fit for takeoff. Then the flight was cleared to leave Cuba, but with the warning there would be no air conditioning.

Even though the plane was hot, there were no other problems during the flight from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Silva said.

The landing at Naval Air Station Jacksonville seemed normal at first, but then the plane didn't stop on the runway. There was a loud bang, he hit his head on the ceiling, and the jet ended up in the water, Silva said.

He looked down and his ankles were in water, he said, and he heard someone yell, "Fuel!"

Silva said he helped usher people out an emergency door onto a wing.

On Sunday, Miami Air International, which operated the aircraft, notified passengers that their overhead luggage from the plane was available for pickup. The airline said passengers would be contacted directly once their checked bags were retrieved.

Also Sunday, a small, one-propeller seaplane crashed into the St. Johns River in Jacksonville. The pilot, who was the only person on board and wasn't injured, was rescued by a kayaker, according to the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department.

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