FAA Suspends Licenses of Pilots in USAir Crash : Captain Says Inexperienced Co-Pilot Disengaged Throttle; Improper Procedures Cited by NTSB

Times Staff Writer

Amid reports of aberrant and inept behavior by the cockpit crew, federal officials on Friday suspended the licenses of the captain and co-pilot of a USAir jetliner that crashed during an aborted takeoff attempt at La Guardia Airport on Wednesday night.

The Federal Aviation Administration said that because of “circumstances related to the accident . . . (Capt. Michael Martin and First Officer Constantine Kleissas) no longer qualify to exercise their privileges to fly an airliner.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 24, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 24, 1989 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 5 National Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Pilot photo--Because of an Associated Press error, a photograph in Saturday’s editions of The Times was wrongly identified as that of Michael Martin, pilot of a USAir flight that crashed on takeoff from New York’s La Guardia Airport. The AP says the man in the picture is an unidentified pilot who was at the scene of the crash.

Subpoenas Issued

The agency said also that it has issued subpoenas for Martin, a veteran pilot, and Kleissas, who was at the controls for the first time on a regularly scheduled 737 flight. The FAA said it is asking them to “provide all pertinent records” involving Wednesday’s crash. The plane broke into three pieces after skidding into the East River, killing two women passengers.

At a briefing Friday night, James L. Kolstad, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that “there clearly was a lack of proper procedure being followed in the cockpit” of USAir Flight 5050.

In separate interviews with NTSB investigators Friday, each pilot cast doubt on the other’s performance.


Martin, the investigators said, described Kleissas as inexperienced and said Kleissas inadvertently disengaged the automatic throttle control mechanism as the plane began its takeoff roll. Martin said he manually engaged the throttle but then felt “a vibration” and detected a leftward drift of the plane. When he could not control the drift with the rudder, he aborted the flight, Martin told the NTSB. Too late, he realized that the plane would skid into the river.

Kleissas told investigators that, after the crash, he had mentioned to others that Martin was “babbling” while going over the preflight checklist, but the co-pilot said he now regrets using that word.

Unnamed New York Port Authority detectives have been quoted in New York newspapers as saying that Kleissas told them that Martin had been “mumbling” and “acting irrationally” before takeoff.

Kleissas, a resident of the San Fernando Valley, was also quoted as saying the pilot began screaming shortly after giving the command to abort the takeoff.

Kolstad said Friday that “it clearly took too long” for Martin and Kleissas to report for drug and alcohol testing after the crash. The results of the tests were not made public Friday.

“The public has a right to know that its transportation system is alcohol- and drug-free,” Kolstad said. “Failure to promptly volunteer for alcohol and drug testing following a major accident is inexcusable.

“The provision of urine samples, and no blood samples, almost two days after this accident severely impedes our investigation and unnecessarily creates an environment of suspicion.”

‘Highly Questionable’

In a statement from Washington, FAA Administrator James B. Busey said that, “for these two pilots to have been sequestered for more than 36 hours after an accident that took two lives and to do so with no explanation is highly questionable.”

Law enforcement officials in New York said the captain’s flight bag had been impounded and searched but “nothing improper” was found. However, the Queens district attorney’s office said it was continuing to monitor the federal investigation of the crash.

Kolstad said that Martin and Kleissas said that they had assisted passengers in evacuating the plane before leaving the crash site.

The senior flight attendant on the plane, at an emotional news conference with three of his co-workers from Flight 5050, said both pilots assisted in rescue efforts.

But the attendant, Wayne Reed, 34, of Chesapeake, Va., refused to comment on the captain’s behavior except to say: “He was assisting me in any way he could.”

The captain told investigators that he took a rescue boat to a nearby pier and then went to a hotel, where he met with representatives of the Air Line Pilots Assn., the pilots’ union.

The co-pilot said a Coast Guard helicopter took him to a Port Authority facility.

Kolstad said the two men told the NTSB that “they’d gone through a very traumatic experience. They’d helped the passengers. They wanted to leave.”

The pilots’ union said Friday that “there was nothing unusual in the crew’s performance; no federal rules were broken, and the crew has cooperated completely with the investigation.”

The union denied also that Martin disappeared after the crash. A USAir representative contacted Martin after the crash and told him to check into a Marriott hotel and stay there, the union said.

“When he was unable to obtain a room at the Marriott, he went to the home of another pilot to rest and recuperate,” the union’s statement said. “There he remained in contact with the company, which knew his whereabouts at all times.”

The NTSB said the cockpit crew’s day began in Baltimore at 2:10 p.m., when the pair were scheduled to fly to La Guardia. Because of delays, the flight did not leave until 7:10 p.m.

Kolstad said the captain told investigators that Kleissas piloted the plane on the flight to La Guardia and his performance “suggested that he was obviously new . . . he missed some radio calls, radio checks.”

The pilot said that, when Flight 5050 prepared to leave La Guardia for Charlotte, N.C., later that night, Kleissas was at the controls. It was the first time Kleissas had piloted a Boeing 737-400 on takeoff on a regularly scheduled flight.

David Shipley, a spokesman for the airline, said in response to questions being raised about Martin’s piloting skills that the captain was “very experienced” at flying a Boeing 737A and that there was nothing negative in his record with USAir or with Piedmont Airlines, which merged with USAir earlier this year.

The NTSB said Martin has about 2,500 hours of experience in a 737.

In contrast, Kleissas had only training in the Boeing 737, although Shipley said he was fully qualified to handle the plane.

“All (our) pilots go through a training program,” Shipley said. “No pilot is out there flying a plane with passengers in the back who has never flown that plane before.”

Kolstad said it had not been determined whether Kleissas’ inexperience contributed to the accident.

In any event, neither pilot followed proper procedure in calling out Flight 5050’s speed as it accelerated down the runway, Kolstad said.

Before taking off, a cockpit crew normally calculates the plane’s “V-1" speed. V-1 is the so-called point of no return, the speed at which the plane is going too fast, and is too far down the runway, to abort the takeoff.

V-1 on a given plane varies according to a number of factors, including load and runway length. According to the NTSB, the V-1 for Flight 5050 on Wednesday was 121 knots.

Under normal conditions, the cockpit crew member not manning the controls on takeoff calls out “V-1" when the plane reaches V-1 speed, “V-R” when the plane reaches the speed to rotate into a nose-high attitude for liftoff and “V-2" when it reaches the speed at which it can safely climb out on one of its two engines.

Aviation sources say there are a number of reasons why the abort attempt might have failed, including miscalculation of the V-1 speed, an inordinate delay before the abort attempt was initiated, brake failure and failure of the thrust reversers, which can be deployed to help slow the plane.

Air traffic controllers did report seeing plumes of spray, apparently indicating that the thrust reversers were deployed during the abort attempt.

Staff writers John J. Goldman and Robert E. Dallos contributed to this story.