The Crash of Flight 427, 20 Years later…

By Christopher A Hart

Photo Credit September 8, 1994, USAir flight 427, a Boeing 737‑300 crashed while maneuvering to land at Pittsburgh International Airport. The airplane was destroyed and 132 people perished. On this day, the 20th anniversary of this tragedy, our thoughts are with the families of the victims.

After a thorough investigation, the NTSB determined that USAir flight 427 lost control because of issues with the rudder that led to the rudder moving in a direction opposite to that commanded by the pilots. This large rudder movement contrary to what the pilots wanted put the airplane into an unusual attitude, and the pilot’s training had not prepared them for how to recover control of the airplane before it hit the ground at high speed. Although the NTSB issued a number of recommendations to address the issues associated with rudder’s design, this wasn’t the first, or last, time that the NTSB discovered difficulties with pilots’ ability to recover from unusual attitudes.

  • On March 31, 1991, United Airlines flight 585, another Boeing 737, crashed while maneuvering to land at Colorado Springs Airport when it experienced the same type of rudder upset as US Air flight 427.
  • On June 9, 1996, Eastwinds Airlines flight 517, also a Boeing 737, experienced an upset on approach to Richmond Airport, which started with the same type of uncommanded rudder movement. In this case, however, the pilot was able to safely recover control before the airplane crashed.
  • On November 2001, American Airlines flight 587, an Airbus 300-600, crashed while taking off from JFK Airport when the tail ripped off during to inappropriate pilot inputs and an unreasonably hypersensitive rudder control system. The flying pilot had recently completed unusual attitude training that had taught inappropriate techniques for recovery.
  • On June 4, 2007, a Cessna Citation 550, chartered by the University of Michigan hospital to carry a medical team involved in a transplant operation, impacted Lake Michigan shortly after departure from General Mitchell International Airport, Milwaukee, Wisconsin when the pilots mismanaged an abnormal flight control situation.

From this body of accident investigations, the NTSB found that recovering from these situations is possible, but only if the pilots immediately recognize the situation and apply appropriate flight control inputs. As a result, even before concluding our investigation of the US Air flight 427 accident, the NTSB asked the FAA to require additional flight crew training that would prepare pilots to handle similar emergencies.

In November 2013, the FAA published a final rule significantly upgrading training requirements for airline pilots. The provisions require initial and recurrent flight simulator training for pilots on escape maneuvers from unusual attitudes. It also gives FAA inspectors the authority to force airlines to change their training programs when an FAA inspector believes the program is promoting undesirable piloting techniques (as was the case in the American Airlines flight 587 accident). Although it took 18 years, and work remains to establish flight simulator specifications that can provide this training, these new requirements are a significant improvement to the safety of airline operations.

The pain of the loss of Flight 427 on September 8, 1994 remains in the hearts and minds of the families affected by this disaster. The outcome, however, has made air travel safer for millions of passengers.

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