The captain of a Southwest Airlines jet that slammed nose-first onto a runway at New York's LaGuardia Airport last month took over the controls from the first officer just 400 feet before touchdown, federal investigators said in a report that suggests a problem in the final seconds of the flight.
Several people suffered minor injuries July 22 when the plane's nose gear collapsed and the Boeing 737 skidded hundreds of feet down the runway before grinding to a halt. In an initial report shortly after the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board said video showed the flight's nose gear had touched the ground before the main gear.
In a normal landing, the main gear touches the ground first, and the nose tilts upward. In this landing, the NTSB said, the plane was tilted downward at a pitch of 3 degrees when it landed after a flight from Nashville.
According to the latest NTSB report, it was the first time the captain and the first officer had worked together. The captain, a 13-year veteran of the Dallas-based airline, has more than 12,000 total flight hours, including 7,900 in Boeing 737s. The first officer has been with Southwest for 18 months and has 5,200 flight hours but had never been the pilot in command in a Boeing 737, the NTSB said.
The flight crew described the flight from Nashville as routine, and as the jet approached LaGuardia, the first officer was at the controls, with the captain in a monitoring role.
Weather had forced the jet to remain in a holding pattern for about 15 minutes, but the sky was clear enough for the crew to report that they could see the airport from about five to 10 miles out, and the aircraft was reported flying on speed, course and glideslope as it dipped below 1,000 feet. Winds were calm.
But on the final approach, below 400 feet, "there was an exchange of control of the airplane, and the captain became the flying pilot and made the landing," the NTSB said. "The jetliner touched down on the runway nose first followed by the collapse of the nose gear."
It said there were no signs of mechanical malfunctions and that the nose gear collapsed as a result of the weight on it upon landing.
[Updated at 2:23 p.m. Aug. 7: "We can verify the information the NTSB has provided is accurate," a Southwest spokesman said Wednesday afternoon in response to a request for comment. "Our Southwest pilot manual and training includes scenarios which cover how to handle change of control of aircraft, including on final approach." As to whether it was abnormal for pilots to switch controls so close to landing, the spokesman said, "I’d say that is what we hope to understand as our investigation with the NTSB continues."]
[For the record: 3:55 p.m. Aug. 7: An earlier version of this post said the NTSB reported that it was the first time the first officer had been in command of a Boeing 737. The NTSB said the first officer had never been pilot-in-command of a Boeing 737.]