Two American Airlines Pilots Almost Crashed, Totaled A Plane, Still Get To Fly

In April 2019, American Airlines flight AA300 from New York JFK to Los Angeles took off from runway 31L. The Airbus A321’s left wing tip hit a sign on the runway. The pilots continued the climb out, levelled off at 20,0000 feet, and returned 27 minutes later back to JFK.

The A321’s wing tip dragged on the ground of the runway. The wing was damaged (and so was the sign). The captain blamed crosswinds for veering left. The NTSB calls it pilot error. The leased aircraft was totaled. It sat for 15 months at New York JFK, and American decided to scrap it. And the pilots are still flying.

Over the weekend I saw the report at the Aviation Herald about the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on the incident.

The captain’s excessive left rudder pedal input during the takeoff ground roll, which caused a large heading deviation and a left roll upon rotation that resulted in the left wingtip striking the ground.

That’s understated agency-speak. One Mile at a Time highlights some of what we know happened from the cockpit voice recorder and investigation of the incident.

The captain said he couldn’t control the plane during takeoff. The first officer grabbed controls and the plane climbed out. There were crosswinds, but at most half of what’s allowable for takeoff.

First officer: “Your airplane, your airplane, your airplane. I don’t know what’s goin’ on.”

Captain: “What the # (happened)?”

First officer: “I don’t know. Ah the engines all go, good.”

Captain: “The # ju- it just # rolled on me.”

First officer: “What the # is that? Are we continuing? #. These girls will never fly with us again. I thought we were gone.”

First officer: “That scared the # outta me, I thought we were gone.”

Captain: “The # airplane just rolled on me dude.”

The captain talked about how much he hates flying the Airbus in crosswind, despite over 20,000 hours of flying and more than 3000 hours on the aircraft. He told a flight attendant that he thought the “rudder got jammed.” And he complained “there’s so many computers we don’t, we don’t know what it # does sometimes.”

He also told the first officer that he takes “full controls” on the plane and finds “it doesn’t react, it doesn’t do anything?” He had taken control of the aircraft despite only 17 mile per hour crosswind, and made a mistake.

Ultimately they returned to New York JFK not for safety but to protect themselves from criticism.

First officer: “Yeah I mean I’m just thinkin’ with that kind of an extreme maneuver, you know just, for the politics of it all. It might not be a bad idea go back, because, these girls will never fly with us again I’m tellin’ ya. and the, I mean that scared me that bad, that I’ve never been so scared in an airplane I don’t think I thought. I mean I wasn’t that scared because like, but I thought it was over. I thought we were goin down.”

Captain: “But yeah the passengers are probably all wondering and then people could ah monday morning quarterback you on continuing, with I’m just sayin’ that, I’m just putting that out there. I mean, I feel safe you know yeah let’s go, but you I’m just saying, I just wanted.”

First officer: “Or maybe call maintenance to cover your #. And tell ’em what happened and see what they- or just ah I don’t know yeah.”

Captain: “You know, I think you’re right.”

First officer: “I think you gotta cover your # on this one.”

The Captain lied to passengers that they had “isolated the faulty system.” To be sure there was no benefit in alarming passengers. At the same time, each time a pilot lies to passengers and it becomes known that reduces confidence and trust in pilots. Passengers don’t know what’s going on in the cockpit, and for the most part don’t understand it, they simply need to trust that the people up front do.

I understand that the pilots have been accepted into the FAA’s Aviation Safety Action Program which encourages voluntary reporting of violations. We want that. But it’s one thing that their licenses haven’t been pulled – it’s another thing entirely that the airline still employs them after totaling a $100 million (list price) aircraft.

According to American Airlines,

The safety of our customers and team members comes above all else at American. It guides every decision we make and action we take. We appreciate the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) thorough investigation and report. We are reviewing the NTSB’s report and recommendations and will closely examine if any changes are needed in training or procedures.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The equivalent of swearing you were mashing the break when you’re actually on the accelerator and drive through the garage wall?

    I’m not sure why the first officer should be faulted here, but I’m not a pilot. Perhaps our pilot friends can explain…

  2. The ASAP program is designed for airline pilots in the same way that General Aviation has ASRS. The pilot can self report within a specified time with no punitive actions. While the general public might not understand, it is actually a beneficial program and enhances safety. Yes, the pilots had a severe incident in which the safety of the aircraft (and passengers by default) was in question. They debated whether to fly on. Had they done that, the ASAP program might not have worked as they knowingly put the aircraft (and passengers by default) in a perilous situation. They made the correct decision to return. And Gary, FAA certified pilots do NOT have licenses. They have a pilot certificate. There is a big difference.

  3. Everybody gets a trophy. Don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. That’s what this world has come to.
    Fire his carcass!!!

  4. AA pilots are taught wrong. Just look at that crash that happened after 9/11 they had some military pilot teaching people to use the rudders hard. Its the problem with military pilots.

  5. Good to learn the pilot, first officer, and passengers survived the landing of their American Airlines A321 jet after the aircraft left wing tip was dragged through the ground of the runway during takeoff. Their jet, valued at $100 million, had substantial damage and was scrapped. Pilot error caused the aircraft damage, according to the NTSB. However, I would be confident flying with this crew for my next American Airlines flight.

  6. It’s interesting that nobody here has asked the question of how could this happen to two veteran pilots with tens of thousands of hours, thousands of which are in the Airbus.

    Early in the NTSB report it says “The flight crew had operated a flight that departed the previous night from LAX and arrived at JFK about 0700 on the day of the accident. The crew then went to a local hotel for scheduled rest. The crewmembers reported for the accident flight about 1 hour 15 minutes before departure.”

    I’m guessing that after being up the entire previous day, then flying a red eye, most people would have a difficult time sleeping or getting “quality” rest for a few hours during the day at a hotel. But yet scheduling practices like this are allowed by the FAA.

  7. This incident is on the pilot in command and not the first officer.

    There is a protocol: when one pilot states “your aircraft,” the other pilot’s response is “my aircraft” and lightly jostles the stick or yoke . . . at which point the first pilot’s hands should be off the stick / yoke. The first officer’s statement “your aircraft” at a point in time when it is already the PIC’s aircraft affirms to the PIC that the first officer is not doing anything to cause the issue.

    If the FO participated in a cover-up, then he is culpable for that.

  8. Koggerj, your comment seems to suggest that military trained pilots use the rudder in an excessive manner. I was trained in the military as a pilot and I have no idea to what you are referring. Your conclusion from the prior incident seems to stem from the post hoc fallacy.

  9. APA: He OBVIOUSLY didn’t have enough time to close the hotel bar on his last layover and kick the hooker (or f/a) out of his room in time to get a good night’s sleep. This is a clear cut case of fatigue which can ONLY be remedied by an immediate 30% pay raise and an even more robust scope clause in the contract.

  10. I don’t see from your article where it is confirmed the pilots are still employed. Gary could you clear up how you know the captain is still flying at American?

  11. Well, according to Gary it won’t matter soon anyway, AA is going bankrupt and he will be out of a job regardless….

  12. 20,000 hours with 3,000 in type and this happens? Pilot error is when they have no other explanation. The root of the question here is WHY did he put in so much rudder? The NTSB could not figure that out and so blamed it on pilot error. That doesn’t mean it was, it just means they couldn’t find another cause. Ships experience rouge waves. Airplanes experience unexpected turbulence. The NTSB obviously looked for something like that, but could find no proof, so it was pilot error. Again, WHY did he put in so much rudder? Was this a pilot issue, or something else? Based on his comments immediately after, it was not something he intended to do, but was responding to how the aircraft was acting. They recovered, and flew on, and then assessed to return as they should have done. The fact that they are still flying is because the pilot error is only because they couldn’t find another cause. Airlines expect to lose an aircraft once in a while, it is part of the risk. I have no doubt this has been heavily reviewed by operations and supervisors and they are satisfied these pilots are safe.

  13. Seriously? ANd they have issues with my dad at 105 behind the wheel of a Buick? HE was actually assessedj after one of his little “fender benders” that he didn’t feel was serious got reported to a local police dept. And the report of the assessor was that he drove with him for about an hour and he drove well, and safely and he never had to use the instructor side brake….THis is unbelievable.

  14. I strongly disagree with the title. The first officer should have no disciplinary action against him but rather commended for good airmanship. The captain also should have no disciplinary action but remedial training. Overuse of the rudder is a common and recurring AA theme. They just like to give it aa lot of rudder.

  15. Why was the aircraft deemed unsafe to fly ever again when it’s only the left wingtip that was damaged from? Anyone can shed more lights in this?

  16. @Ron wing spar was bent due to the forces, permanent deflection of > 6 inches across the span. Way out of any specs from the SRM and would have needed a custom engineering repair from Airbus. Insurance write off due to the (I’m assuming) ridiculous cost to rebuild the entire wing. AAL swapped ownership of 796 for another frame with the lessor and parted out the plane right here at JFK.

  17. Jeez! That airplane sure doesn’t look “totaled’. UnionTHAT has analyzed this situation way better than VFTW and OMAAT who are not pilots.

  18. Thes epilots have probally dlown countless hours and flights safely. One cannot speculate without knowing the full story and one NTSB report does not disclose all details. Frankly, its not anyones business other than the airlines to publicly discuss their emplyment. Without knowing the full story ist becomes slander, defamamtion, and gossip.

  19. Totaled??

    It certainly looks repairable to me.

    There must be more to this “Totaled” label than what we’ve been told here.

  20. @sean Now it all makes sense! Thanks for the enlightenment. It’s a testament on how well the aircraft was built that “all controls are performing beautifully” and the plane could still fly without any more problems when the left wing was bent > 6⁰

  21. @Dr. C: I would be confident flying with this crew for my next American Airlines A321 flight. I can not find any report of a flight crew that previously damaged a $100 million aircraft beyond repair and later became involved in a second accident caused by another aggravating terrain collision resulting in comparable aircraft damage. What are the odds of American Airlines pilots having two accidents in their career?

  22. With 20K of flying hours, I would think that the captain came from flying mostly Boeings. With that in mind many older pilots absolutely despise flying Airbus aircraft. Since so much is automated on an Airbus, we probably will never know exactly what happened. One would never hear that there is a control problem on very popular aircraft, right? Right? So it is “pilot error”.

  23. I’m sorry Gary but this article really needs to be pulled.

    Let’s start with the title that clearly implies both pilots share an equal measure of responsibility and neither should be flying. That’s not remotely the case and you should certainly know that since you read the article that gives us the actual cause of this incident. You even highlight it.

    Second you take quotes out of context in part (if I’m to be charitable) because you don’t understand the Airbus and it’s FBW system.

    Your “quotes” about his use of full controls are especially egregious in this regard.

    Worse though is your assertion that they returned to JFK in some vain attempt to protect themselves from criticism. Really? A diversion back to the airport is going to prevent them from being criticized some how?

    When they had this part of the conversation they had zero indication of anything wrong with the airplane. The airplane was flying well and their were no cautions or warnings nor had inflight told them yet of the customer observed damage. Yet they still choose the safest course of action which was a return to JFK.

    You then go on to double down on your calls for BOTH pilots to lose their jobs and certificates. Even though as you know it was the Captains sudden rudder input that was solely responsible for the incident. And input the FO had no way of knowing he was making because his feet were not and should not have been on the rudder pedals at that point in time. The FO has literally done nothing wrong here.

  24. It must be great being somebody who sits at a desk or in a comfy up the front chair to make decisions about Tech Crew abilities and competence. The writer is obviously a know-all commentator who has never put himself or been put in a situation like this which causes great stress and conflicts in the mind. Oh, that’s right he had a broken fingernail once, as opposed to the life and death decision of a pilot or the three dimensional “industry” in which I worked. Moron.

  25. Gary, you are not a pilot. Reading one NTSB report does not make you an expert. You seem to write for sensationalism.

  26. @Zach Thomas – if you want to disparage the way to do it is to identify something I’ve written that it inaccurate and then explain why. Your failure to do so speaks volumes.

  27. After American Airlines flight AA300 from New York JFK to Los Angeles crashed, and the A321 aircraft was totaled by the flight deck crew, there should be enough scrap metal to supply almost every platinum and above AAdvantage elite member with an A321 metal luggage tag. Now, only the Concierge Key top-tier elites receive an MD-80 metal luggage tag.

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