WASHINGTON — Federal investigators are blaming pilot error for a Delta Air Lines jet skidding off a snow-covered LaGuardia Airport runway last year because the crew’s captain lost control of the airplane after using excessive reverse thrust when he landed.
The Boeing MD-88 with 127 passengers and five crew members aboard veered left off runway 13, hit a fence and stopped with its left wing leaking fuel onto a berm overlooking Flushing Bay about 11 a.m. on March 5, 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
The investigation also found that the flight crew violated procedures, in allowing passengers to fetch their coats, and delaying the evacuation of the plane after the crash, although only 29 people had minor injuries and no one was seriously hurt.
“Make no mistake: This was a very close call,” said Christopher Hart, the board’s chairman, after his four-member panel heard and approved the findings and recommendations of an 18-month investigation during a public hearing Tuesday.
The pilots did not have timely information and did not expect to see a snowy runway when they approached LaGuardia, investigators said.
The captain and co-pilot knew they were flying into a challenging snowstorm on their route from Atlanta to New York.
They had developed plans to go to an alternative airport if LaGuardia did not report that other planes had landed with good braking conditions, Hart said.
But the airport reported braking conditions were good and runway 13 had been cleared, sanded and de-iced, investigators said, though it had not been treated since dawn.
“As the airplane descended through the clouds, the flight crew did not expect to see that the runway, which had recently been cleared, was covered with snow,” Hart said.
“They are thinking this is a slippery snow-covered runway with water at the other end — very cold water by the way — so we need to stop right now,” Hart said. “So one of the first things they did was they landed sooner than they otherwise would ... and immediately thrust reverse.”
The captain applied too much reverse thrust too soon, before the nose wheel hit the runway, despite recommended procedure, investigators said.
A reverse thrust, which blasts exhaust forward to slow the plane, can make the rudder ineffective in the control of the airplane.
After the crash, it took two hours to get the correct passenger count, investigators said, because the manifest showed 125 passengers and omitted two lap-held children who didn’t have tickets — a potential problem for emergency responders.
The investigators’ recommendations include more training for crews, a study to determine the best way to apply maximum reverse thrust and examining the use of technology to tell pilots immediately about the quality of braking action on runways.
Delta Air Lines said in a statement that it cooperated with the investigation, respects its findings and will use the guidance to enhance the safety of its operation.