Expert: Pilot error likely involved in NAS Jacksonville mishap

Expert says plane approached too fast before skidding off runway into river

By Allyson Henning - Reporter, Eric Wallace - Senior Producer, I-TEAM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A day after a chartered Boeing 737 slid off a 9,003-foot runway at Naval Air Station Jacksonville and into shallow waters of the St. Johns River, the biggest unanswered question remained why.

News4Jax aviation expert Ed Booth said weather could have played a factor in distracting the pilot as thunder and lightning storms were moving through the area around 9:40 p.m. Friday, when the plane skidded into the river.

"When you are flying at night, your eyes become acclimated to the dark. Your night vision is working and bright flashes tend to impair your night vision and distract you,” Booth explained. “Lightning is a sign of turbulence. You want to avoid areas where lightning is striking.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Boeing 737 skids into St. Johns River

Booth, who had no firsthand knowledge of the incident, spent time looking at flight data from the moments leading up to the plane's landing. He found the pilot approached the runway around 30 mph faster than guidelines dictate and because of that, he speculated that National Transportation Safety Board investigators will find pilot error was involved.

“It is my initial belief, based on radar flight tracking data, that the pilot was going too fast as he approached to land,” Booth said. “As much as 25 to 30 miles faster than a landing situation would call for. This, coupled with the probability that he touched down further down the runway than he perhaps anticipated to, left him in a situation where he was unable to stop before reaching the end of the runway.”

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A source told News4Jax that the pilot, whose name has not been released, was the last one off the plane and made sure everyone else was cared for and rescued first.

Booth said the runway itself is long enough to accommodate a safe landing at 9,003 feet long and 200 feet wide. It was resurfaced four years ago.

Booth said the situation could have been much worse had the plane not come to rest in the shallow waters of the river.

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“This was the best case scenario if the airplane had to overrun the runway,” Booth said. “This sort of a thing shouldn’t happen in a properly flown-in airplane. The NTSB is going to be looking at the pilot’s performance. They’re also going to be looking at the condition of the airplane.”

The official findings will come from the NTSB's investigation, which could take quite some time to be released.

What we know about the aircraft

According to the Federal Aviation Administration database:

  • Manufactured in 2001.  
  • Current aircraft registration certificate was issued Aug. 24, 2016, and expires Aug. 31, 2022.
  • Airworthiness certificate issued Nov. 10, 2010.

According to Planespotters.net and Airfleets.net 

  • The plane was first delivered to Miami Air in 2001.
  • In October 2004, Martinair Holland leased the plane from Miami Air.
  • It was returned from lease to Miami Air in November 2005, and they resumed operating it.
  • In May 2008, XL Airways UK leased the plane from Miami Air. At that point, it was given the UK registration number G-OXLD. UK registration info showed the plane had flown 15,903 hours as of Dec. 31, 2007.
  • It was returned from the lease back to Miami Air in September 2008.
  • In March 2010, it was leased out to XL Airways Germany and got the German registration D-AXLI.
  • It was returned to Miami Air in November 2010.
  • In July 2016, it was leased to TUI Airlines Netherlands.
  • It was returned to Miami Air in September 2016.
  • TUI Airlines leased the plane again from July 2017 to September 2017, and then again from July 2018 to September 2018. Miami Air was operating it in the meantime.

Ed Booth also looked into the history of the plane leading up to Friday's flight. This is what he found:

“I looked at the earlier history of the airplane. The day before on May 2, it made it two unusual flights out of Miami. It left Miami International, flew for about 40 minutes, and then returned to Miami International. That could be one of two things. It could be a crew training flight, although that is handled typically in simulators today, but that may be indicative that the airplane was undergoing some major maintenance -- major maintenance requiring a post-maintenance test flight. The fact that there were two test flights tells me that something may have been amiss, but these are all things that the investigators are going to be looking at. We are early in this process but we do know some things for certain based on the data that is out there.

“It has been reported that when the airplane arrived at Guantanamo Bay, the passengers complained the air conditioning was not functioning. There will need to be an explanation as to why the airplane was dispatched with a non-functioning air conditioning system, but more troubling is a look at the flight track data, which shows the airplane in its flight from Jacksonville to Guantanamo and then returning never flew above 16,000 feet. This is in an airplane that normally cruises at 34,000 to 35,000 feet. In fact, I checked -- the flight from Norfolk to Jacksonville earlier yesterday, he reached 35,000 feet. So, very unusual. The air conditioning and the pressurization systems are linked together. If this airplane was dispatched with a known problem in the pressurization system, that is going to require an explanation that the investigators are certainly going to want to look at.”

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