September 20th 1989: A Deadly Day For USAir

Today marks 33 years since the crash of USAir Flight 5050. On September 20th, 1989, a Boeing 737-400 took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, but the crew suddenly aborted takeoff, sending the aircraft skidding into Bowery Bay, off the East River, killing two passengers. Let’s take a look back at how it all unfolded.

Who was onboard?

In total, 57 customers and six crew members were on the plane that was heading to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The flight’s captain that day was Michael Martin. His first officer was Constantine Kleissas. Notably, neither of them had formal training in cockpit resource management. Additionally, emergency processes weren’t discussed despite the poor weather conditions that day.

The aircraft involved

According to the Aviation Safety Network, the Boeing 737-400 operating USAir flight 5050 on September 20th, 1989 bore the registration N416US. It was just 10 months old at the time, having racked up just 2,235 hours of flight across 1,730 cycles. Data from shows that it had arrived at USAir the month before.

A sudden decision

Ready to depart for Charlotte, North Carolina after what had been an eventful day of delays for the aircraft, it began its takeoff roll at 23:30 local time. However, after hearing a loud bang while the service was picking up speed, the flight deck crew attempted to abort the aircraft’s takeoff. Sadly, when doing so, they weren’t able to stop the plane before the end of the airport’s runway 31.

Just after 23:21 local time, the crew made their last transmission, stating their intentions to abort the departure. However, when the aircraft crossed the end of the runway, it was still traveling at a ground speed of 34 knots (63 km/h or 39 mph). Subsequently, the narrow body ended up in the water beyond the landing strip. The accident report shared by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) states:

As the first officer began the takeoff on runway 31, he felt the airplane drift left. The captain noticed the left drift also and used the nosewheel tiller to help steer. As the takeoff run progressed, the aircrew heard a “bang” and a continual rumbling noise. The captain then took over and rejected the takeoff but did not stop the airplane before running off the end of the runway into Bowery Bay. Instrument flight conditions prevailed at the time and the runway was wet.

The NTSB added that “the probable cause of this accident was the captain’s failure to exercise his command authority in a timely manner to reject the takeoff or take sufficient control to continue the takeoff, which was initiated with a mistrimmed rudder. Also causal was the captain’s failure to detect the mistrimmed rudder before the takeoff was attempted.

The aftermath

All the plane’s exits, apart from the L1 door and L2 door, were used for evacuation. L1 couldn’t be opened, and water started to enter L2 when opened. The flight attendants managed to successfully evacuate most passengers. However, two passengers were trapped in 21F and 22A. They were extricated around 1.5 hours after the crash. In total, 21 people were injured in the crash.

Sadly, two women at the rear of the aircraft died. They had been sitting in seats 21A and 21B, and reportedly perished due to, as the Aviation Safety Network notes, “the massive upward crush of the cabin floor.” Both pilots lost their licenses after the accident, which Jim Burnett asserted was also partially caused by “the failure of USAir to provide an adequately experienced and seasoned flight crew.”

The plane’s livery was going through a transition amid a Piedmont absorption into USAir at the time. USAir changed its name to US Airways in 1997, and the carrier merged with America West in 2005. The US Airways brand was completely discontinued in 2015 after a merger with American Airlines at the end of 2013.



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