Safety at Burbank Airport Probed Following Southwest Crash
By David R. Baker, Jennifer Hamm and Harrison Sheppard
BURBANK -- As the battered body of a Southwest Airlines jet was towed
from Hollywood Way, local officials seized on the near disaster to renew
the debate on Burbank Airport safety, plans for a new terminal and
The National Transportation Safety Board opened its investigation with
officials promising to examine everything from equipment on the 15-
year-old aircraft to the actions of its veteran crew. Part of the
investigation will focus on the***pit data records, which were flown
to the NTSB lab in Washington, D.C. Several of the plane's passengers
said the jet approached the airport too fast and at too steep an angle
to stop after touchdown.
"We're going to be -- starting tomorrow -- doing a very, very detailed
examination of the airplane's systems, every aspect of them, and we're
also going to be looking at the crew's performance," Jeff Rich, the
safety board's lead investigator, said Monday.
As workers hauled the damaged 737-300 back onto the airport tarmac, the
crash, which caused only minor injuries, reignited a long-running battle
over Burbank Airport's planned expansion. Backers of efforts to upgrade
the airport seized on the accident as graphic proof of their arguments.
"The notion that there's not a safety problem at this airport vanished
(Sunday) night," said Carl Meseck, chairman of the
Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority Commission.
The authority wants to relocate and upgrade the airport terminal, which
sits just 350 feet from the runway the plane overshot.
"We all need to sit down and see how we can move the relocation
forward," Burbank Mayor Stacey Murphy said. "It's a huge safety issue."
But former Burbank City Councilman Ted McConkey said the airport's
planned upgrade would do nothing to prevent similar incidents from
occurring in the future. The length of the runways would not change in
the proposed upgrade.
"There'd be nothing to stop the same accident from happening," said
McConkey, a longtime expansion foe. "It wouldn't have made any
Federal investigators aren't sure why Southwest Flight 1455 skidded off
the runway around 6:10 p.m. Sunday, crashed through a metal barrier and
barreled onto Hollywood Way, nudging an automobile and stopping just feet
from a Chevron gas station.
Rich said investigators already had interviewed the crew of a plane that
landed shortly before the ill-fated Southwest flight. Despite the raging
storms that blew through the San Fernando Valley earlier Sunday, the
earlier crew reported a dry runway and good braking action.
"They described the conditions as fairly benign," Rich said.
The same could not be said of Flight 1455's landing, several of the 142
people on board said.
As the plane descended toward Burbank, flying east across the Valley,
the pilot made a sharp left turn, said passenger Garrett Hamil of
Hollywood. The plane then turned back to the right and swayed back and
forth, he said.
The plane hit the pavement at what seemed like the middle of the runway,
he said, and rocketed on through the metal barrier. On Monday, Hamil was
still marveling that the jet didn't hit the gas station and touch off an
"Looking at that Chevron station and how close we were to that pump and
the jet fuel . . . we were saved," he said through tears. "It was not
At 6,032 feet, the runway is shorter than those used by the largest
aircraft, but an acceptable size for commuter planes like the 737-300,
according to aviation experts.
"It's adequate for a 737. However, if anything goes wrong, it leaves
very little margin for luck to come in," said Frank Tullo, a retired
airline pilot and aviation safety consultant. "Most of the runways are a
lot longer than that."
Unlike the doomed Alaska Airlines Flight 261, in which all 88 people
aboard died Jan. 31 after the aircraft plunged into water off the
Ventura County coast, no one died in Sunday's crash.
All six people who were hurt, including the plane's pilot, were treated at
Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank and released before
midnight Sunday, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Officials at Southwest Airlines declined to release the names of the
Oakland-based pilot and first officer, citing the ongoing investigation.
They described the pilot, however, as an experienced flier who served in
the U.S. Air Force before joining Southwest in 1988. Company spokeswoman
Beth Harbin said the pilot has been flying 737s since 1980. He suffered
a gash to his head during the crash.
The first officer, Harbin said, has 15 years of flying experience and
joined the airline in 1996.
The crew reported no problems with the aircraft during the flight,
according to company officials. The aircraft has flown 32,000 flight
cycles to date -- each representing one takeoff and one landing. Its
last service check, on Thursday, turned up no problems, Harbin said.
The aircraft might not fly again. The crash damaged its nose, landing
gear and right engine.
The plane was gingerly towed away from the crash site around 9 a.m.
Monday, with the assistance of two cranes brought in by a private
contractor and a flatbed truck used to keep the nose steady, said
Burbank airport spokesman Victor Gill. It was brought to an open-air
location next to the runway, where NTSB investigators pored over the
aircraft looking for clues to what went wrong.
Tuesday, March 07 2000 at 11:22 EST