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American Airlines Flight 1420 was a flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) to Little Rock National Airport in the United States. On June 1, 1999, the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 operating as Flight 1420 overran the runway upon landing in Little Rock and crashed. Eleven of the 145 people aboard were killed, the captain and ten passengers.

American Airlines Flight 1420
American Airlines Flight 1420 wreckage2.jpg
N215AA's final position, having overrun the runway and crashed into the runway approach lights
Date1 June 1999
SummaryRunway overrun in inclement weather due to pilot error [1]:xii
SiteLittle Rock National Airport
Little Rock, Arkansas, United States
Aircraft typeMcDonnell Douglas MD-82
OperatorAmerican Airlines
Flight originDallas/Fort Worth Int'l Airport
DestinationLittle Rock National Airport



An American Airlines MD-82 similar to the one involved
Seat chart for American Airlines Flight 1420 created by the NTSB, revealing the location of passengers and lack of injury, severity of injuries, and deaths

The aircraft involved in the incident was a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 (registration N215AA[2]), a derivative of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 and part of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series of aircraft.[1]:12 It was delivered new to American Airlines in 1983, and had been operated continuously by the airline since, accumulating a total of 49,136 flight hours.[1]:12 The aircraft was powered by Pratt & Whitney JT8D-217C turbofan jet engines.[1]:12

The aircraft was equipped with X-band weather radar, which is susceptible to attenuation during heavy precipitation, and did not have an attenuation alert to warn the flight crew of system impairment during heavy rainfall.[1]:13 The radar weather system had a forward-looking design that offered the flight crew only a limited field of view in front of the aircraft.[1]:116

Flight crewEdit

Flight 1420 was commanded by Captain Richard Buschmann, age 48, a very experienced chief pilot for with 10,234 total flight hours, of which approximately half were accumulated flying the MD-80 series of aircraft.[1]:10 Buschmann graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1972, serving in the Air Force until 1979. He held the rank of lieutenant colonel with the US Air Force Reserve Command, and was hired by American Airlines in July 1979. Experienced at flying the Boeing 727 for American, he transitioned to flying the twin-engine McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series in 1991.[3]

The flight's first officer was Michael Origel, age 35.[1]:10 The first officer had been with the airline for less than a year, and had only 182 hours of flight time with American Airlines as an MD-80 pilot.[1]:11 However, the first officer had trained as a pilot with the United States Navy and had prior commercial flight experience as a corporate pilot, with a total of 4,292 hours of experience at the time of the incident.[1]:11

Flight 1420 was staffed with four flight attendants, all of whom were qualified on the MD-80 and had recently received refresher training on emergency procedures.[1]:11

Flight and weather conditionsEdit

Simulation of weather conditions

Flight 1420 was scheduled to depart DFW at 20:28 Central Daylight Time and arrive in Little Rock at 21:41.[1]:1 However, the flight crew was advised before boarding that the departure would be delayed, and that the National Weather Service had issued in-flight weather advisories indicating severe thunderstorms along the planned flight path.[1]:2 Adverse weather caused the plane that was intended for Flight 1420 to be delayed in arriving at DFW.[1]:2 Airline policy set a maximum pilot duty time of 14 hours, and Flight 1420 was the flight crew's last flight of the day. The first officer notified the airline's flight dispatcher that the flight crew would therefore be unable to depart after 23:16.[1]:2 The airline substituted another MD-80, tail number N215AA, which allowed Flight 1420 to depart DFW at 22:40.[1]:2

At 23:04, air traffic controllers issued a weather advisory indicating severe thunderstorms in an area that included the Little Rock airport,[1]:2 and the flight crew witnessed lightning while on approach.[1]:3 The flight crew discussed the weather reports but decided to expedite the approach rather than diverting to the designated alternate airport (Nashville International Airport) or returning to DFW.[1]:2–3

Air traffic control at Little Rock had originally told Flight 1420 to expect an approach to runway 22L. However, at 23:39 a controller advised the crew of a wind-shear alert and a change in wind direction.[1]:3 As a result, Captain Buschmann requested a change to Runway 4R so that the flight would have a headwind during landing, and Flight 1420 was cleared for a visual approach to this runway.[1]:4 Because the plane was already close to the airport, the controller had to direct it away to line it up for a landing on 4R.[1]:116 As a result, Flight 1420 faced away from the airport for several minutes, and because the plane's weather radar had a narrow and forward-facing field of view, the flight crew could not see thunderstorms approaching the airport during their turn.[1]:116 As the aircraft approached, a severe thunderstorm arrived over the airport, and at 23:44 the first officer notified the controller that the crew had lost sight of the runway.[1]:4 The controller then cleared the aircraft to land on 4R using an instrument landing system (ILS) approach.[1]:4

The pilots rushed to land as soon as possible, leading to errors in judgment that included the crew's failure to complete the airline's pre-landing checklist before landing.[1]:122 This was a crucial event in the accident chain, as the crew overlooked multiple critical landing systems on the checklist. The flight crew failed to arm the automatic spoiler system, which automatically moves the spoiler control lever and deploys the spoilers upon landing.[1]:15–16 The pilots also failed to set the plane's automatic braking system.[1]:21 The flight crew also failed to set landing flaps, another item on the pre-flight checklist, but as the plane descended past 1,000 feet (300 m), the first officer realized the flaps were not set and the flight crew set a 40-degree flap setting for landing.[1]:123

At 23:49:32, the controller issued the last weather report before Flight 1420 landed, advising that winds at the airport were 330 degrees at 25 knots.[1]:6 The reported winds exceeded the MD-82's 20-knot crosswind limit for landing in reduced visibility on a wet runway.[1]:3 Despite the excessive crosswind and two wind-shear reports, Captain Buschmann did not abandon the aircraft's approach into Little Rock, instead deciding to continue the approach to 4R.


Simulation of the landing

The aircraft touched down on Runway 4R at 23:50:20. About two seconds after the wheels touched down, First Officer Origel stated, "We're down. We're sliding!" Because the pilots failed to arm the autospoiler, the spoilers did not deploy automatically on landing, and the flight crew did not deploy them manually.[1]:167 Autospoilers and autobrakes are essential to ensure the plane's ability to stop within the confines of a wet runway, especially one that is being subjected to strong and gusting winds. Spoilers disrupt the airflow over the wings, prevent them from generating lift, and cause more of the plane's weight to be borne by the landing gear. About 65 percent of Flight 1420's weight would have been supported by the plane's landing gear if the spoilers had been deployed, but without the spoilers this number dropped to only 15 percent.[1]:134 With the light loading of the landing gear, the aircraft's brakes were ineffective at slowing down the plane, which continued down the runway at high speed.[1]:134–135 Directional control was lost when Captain Buschmann applied too much reverse thrust, which reduced the effectiveness of the plane's rudder and vertical stabilizer.[1]:135–136

The aircraft continued past the end of the runway, traveling another 800 feet and striking a security fence and an ILS localizer array. The aircraft then collided with a structure built to support the approach lights for Runway 22L, which extended out into the Arkansas River.[1]:43 Such structures are usually frangible, designed to shear off on impact, but because the approach lights were located on the unstable river bank, they were firmly anchored.[1]:159 The collision with the sturdy structure crushed the airplane's nose and destroyed the left side of the plane's fuselage, from the cockpit back to the first two rows of coach seating.[1]:159 The impact broke the aircraft apart into large sections, which came to a rest short of the river bank.[1]:43

Captain Buschmann and 10 of the plane's 139 passengers died in the crash, including two passengers who died in the hospital in the weeks that followed.[1]:47[4] First Officer Origel, three of the four flight attendants, and 41 passengers sustained serious injuries.[1]:47


The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the crash.

Automatic spoiler and brake systemsEdit

The NTSB conducted extensive testing to determine whether the automatic spoiler and brake systems had been armed by the pilots before landing.

The plane's cockpit voice recorder (CVR) was reviewed, and no sounds consistent with the spoiler arming or automatically deploying were recorded by the CVR.[1]:42 The NTSB conducted two test flights of American Airlines MD-80 aircraft, which confirmed that manually arming the spoiler created an audible click noise, distinguishable from that made by automatic deployment of the system, that could be clearly heard on CVR playback.[1]:42 The NTSB also conducted ground tests on similar aircraft, including another American Airlines MD-80 for which the autospoiler system failed to deploy during a runway overrun, an event in Palm Springs, California that did not result in destruction of the aircraft.[1]:55

After Flight 1420 and the Palm Springs incident, American Airlines revised its checklist so that pilots would confirm that the spoilers are armed for auto-deployment before landing, confirm spoiler deployment and deploy spoilers manually if they had failed to automatically deploy.[1]:87[5]

Pilot behavior regarding thunderstormsEdit

The NTSB investigation also focused on pilot behavior in inclement weather, to determine the impact the storms may have had on the pilots' decision-making process while approaching Little Rock National Airport.

Experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) performed a study recording behavior of pilots landing at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport,[1]:142 which aimed to see whether pilots were willing to land in thunderstorms. From a total of 1,952 thunderstorm encounters, 1,310 pilots (67 percent) flew into thunderstorms during landing attempts.[1]:142 The study found that pilots exhibited more recklessness if they fell behind schedule, if they were attempting to land at night and if aircraft in front of them successfully landed in similar weather. In a later interview, Greg Feith, the lead NTSB investigator, said he was surprised to learn that pilots exhibited this behavior.[5] Feith added that the pilots may have exhibited "get there-itis" as the pilots knew that they were approaching their 14-hour duty limits.[5][6]


The NTSB report cited fatigue as a contributing factor. The captain had been awake for 16 hours that day (Page 106), research indicates that after being awake for 13 hours pilots make considerably more mistakes (page 157) the time of the crash occurred several hours after both pilots usual bedtime (page 106). The first officer reported feeling tired that night and a yawn was heard on the CVR (Page 157). The report states that sleep deprived individuals are likely to try the same method of problem solving again and again without looking at alternative options.

Legal issuesEdit

Multiple lawsuits were filed after the crash, and on December 15, 1999, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated the various federal lawsuits for consolidated and coordinated pretrial proceedings and assigned the case to the late United States District Court Senior Judge Henry Woods of the Eastern District of Arkansas. In the lawsuits, the passengers sought compensatory and punitive damages from American Airlines.

Judge Woods separated the passenger cases into those involving domestic and international passengers, because different laws governed the rights of the claimants in each category. For example, passengers traveling on international tickets were prohibited by an international treaty (the Warsaw Convention) from recovering punitive damages. Therefore, Woods ruled that only the domestic passengers would be permitted to pursue punitive damages claims.[7]

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its determination on the cause of the crash:[1]:169–170

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable causes of this accident were the flight crew's failure to discontinue the approach when severe thunderstorms and their associated hazards to flight operations had moved into the airport area and the crew's failure to ensure that the spoilers had extended after touchdown.

Contributing to the accident were the flight crew's (1) impaired performance resulting from fatigue and the situational stress associated with the intent to land under the circumstances, (2) continuation of the approach to a landing when the company's maximum crosswind component was exceeded, and (3) use of reverse thrust greater than 1.3 engine pressure ratio after landing.

The compensatory damages claims proceeded first. American Airlines "admitted liability for the crash and individual trials were scheduled to assess the proper amount of compensatory damages. Thereafter American Airlines reached settlement agreements with a majority of the domestic Plaintiffs."[8]

"Three compensatory damages trials involving domestic Plaintiffs were ultimately tried to a jury and awards of $5.7 million, $3.4 million and $4.2 million were made."[8] These three Plaintiffs pursued but ultimately lost their claims for punitive damages. The District Court granted summary judgment in American Airlines' favor on punitive damages, finding under Arkansas law the evidence was insufficient to submit the issue to a jury to decide.[8] This ruling was later upheld on appeal.[9]

In the only liability trial arising out of the crash of Flight 1420, a federal jury in Little Rock awarded Captain Buschmann's family $2 million in wrongful-death damages following a lawsuit they had filed against Little Rock National Airport.[10] The jury decided Buschmann's death occurred because the aircraft collided with illegal non-frangible approach light supports erected in what should have been the runway safety area. It was concluded that the airport failed to comply with airport safety standards. Buschmann's estate presented evidence that the spoilers were deployed and had malfunctioned (not through the captain's fault), and that the aircraft did not encounter turbulence.[11] The jury rejected the airport's argument that Buschmann was at fault in causing his own death.[10]

It has been stated the jury verdict completely absolved Buschmann of all fault for the crash.[11] However, the NTSB has not changed its probable cause ruling, and American Airlines admitted liability for the crash and "paid many millions of dollars in damages to the passengers and their families."[10]

About 10 years after the crash, David Rapoport, a lawyer who was a member of the court-appointed Plaintiffs' Steering Committee,[12] stated that "after all these years [whether Captain Buschmann was "absolved" of all responsibility for the crash] is still a matter reasonable people who are fully informed may disagree on", however, there should be consensus "flight operations should not be conducted in the terminal area when thunderstorms are on the flight path; and non-frangible objects should not be placed where it is foreseeable an aircraft may go."[10]

In popular cultureEdit

  • The events of Flight 1420 were featured in "Racing the Storm", a Season 1 (2003) episode of the Canadian TV series Mayday[5] (called Air Emergency and Air Disasters in the U.S. and Air Crash Investigation in the UK and elsewhere around the world). The dramatization was broadcast in the United States with the title "Fatal Landing". The flight was also included in a Mayday Season 8 (2009) Science of Disaster special titled "Cruel Skies",[13] which looked at the role of bad weather in aviation disasters.


A 2004 memorial ceremony was held adjacent to the airport. Survivor Jeana Varnell attended the ceremony and, in a newspaper article, strongly objected to memorializing Captain Buschmann.[14]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av Aircraft Accident Report – Runway Overrun During Landing, American Airlines Flight 1420, McDonnell Douglas MD-82, N215AA, Little Rock, Arkansas, June 1, 1999 (PDF). National Transportation Safety Board. March 24, 1999. Retrieved January 12, 2016.
  2. ^ "FAA Registry (N215AA)". Federal Aviation Administration.
  3. ^ "Recent Losses". Allied Pilots Association. Retrieved September 6, 2016.
  4. ^ Harter, Andrea (April 11, 2001). "Flight 1420 plaintiff sobbingly testifies about her distress". Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d "Racing the Storm". Mayday. Season 1. Episode 2. 2003. Discovery Channel Canada / National Geographic Channel.
  6. ^ Rhoda, D.A.; Pawlak, M.L. (June 3, 1999). "An Assessment of Thunderstorm Penetrations and Deviations by Commercial Aircraft in the Terminal Area" (PDF). MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 4, 2016. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  7. ^ In Re Air Crash at Little Rock, Ark., on June 1, 1999, 109 F.Supp.2d 1022, 1024 (E.D.Ark. 2000).
  8. ^ a b c In re Aircraft Accident at Little Rock, Arkansas, 231 F.Supp.2d 852, 855-57 (E.D.Ark. 2002).
  9. ^ In re Aircraft Accident at Little Rock, Arkansas on June 1, 1999, 351 F.3d 874, 880–881 (8th Cir. 2003).
  10. ^ a b c d "Over $14 Million for Victims of American Airlines Little Rock Airplane Crash". Rapoport Law Offices, P.C. February 4, 2011. Retrieved September 15, 2011. A jury found the airport was liable and awarded the captain's family $2m in wrongful death damages ... the jury found the captain was not at fault in causing his own death ... the passenger injury and wrongful death cases were based on pilot error and the airline admitted liability in all these cases ... the NTSB has not revised its probable cause finding that focused completely on pilot error
  11. ^ a b Archived May 19, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Court-appointed Plaintiffs' Steering Committee in consolidated litigation arising out of the crash
  13. ^ "Cruel Skies". Mayday. Season 8. Episode 2. 2009. Discovery Channel Canada / National Geographic Channel.
  14. ^ Harter, Andrea (June 2, 2004). "'Forever linked' through Flight 1420". Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Retrieved March 10, 2016.

External linksEdit