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Southwest Pilot Takes Full Blame for Accident at Burbank Airport

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the final seconds before his Boeing 737 hurtled through the blast shields at the end of the runway and skidded onto a busy street in Burbank last year, Southwest Airlines pilot Howard Peterson repeatedly exclaimed, “My fault . . . my fault.”

And, when the plane finally came to rest and the sirens of approaching crash trucks filled the cockpit, Peterson, a veteran airline captain with 11,000 hours flying time, declared, “Well, there goes my career.”

The pilot’s comments are contained in a transcript of the cockpit voice recorder released here Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board as part of its ongoing investigation of the March 5, 2000, accident at Burbank Airport.

All 142 passengers and crew members survived, though several people were treated for what were described as minor injuries--including Peterson, whose head smashed against the windshield as he fought to slow the plane.

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Earlier, as Flight 1455 approached Burbank from Las Vegas, Peterson and first officer Jeffery D. Erwin chatted about reports of problems with a larger version of the 737 they thought Southwest might add to its fleet.

“They said they’re having a hard time, uh, gettin’ ‘em down ‘cause they’re so heavy and stopping them, too, because they’re just big, heavy airplanes,” Peterson said in the cockpit.

While the NTSB has not issued a final report on the Burbank accident, data from Flight 1455’s black boxes and eyewitness accounts suggest it occurred because the aircraft came in at too steep an angle of descent and was traveling too fast when it touched down--"high and hot,” as Peterson later acknowledged in an interview with investigators.

Under such circumstances, it is standard procedure for the pilot to inform the control tower that he intends to circle around and approach the runway again. Peterson said he had often made “pilot-initiated go-arounds” at other airports but elected not to do so that time.

Peterson and Erwin were fired by Southwest in August.

The pilot told investigators he remembered hearing a cockpit alarm warning that he seemed to be too high on approach but thought no special action was necessary under the circumstances, the report said.

He also said he realized the plane was traveling too fast as soon as he crossed the approach end of the runway.

Black box data indicate the plane was traveling 206 mph as it landed, almost 60 mph too fast.

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Peterson told investigators that as the plane hit the runway, the end seemed closer than it should have been. He thought they might hit the wall. He was not sure the plane would stop, the report said.

Peterson applied “max braking all the way,” he said, and threw the rudder hard over to force the plane into a sharp right turn in a final, unsuccessful effort to stop before reaching the end of the runway.

The plane plowed through the metal anti-blast barriers and airport fence and lurched to a halt on Hollywood Way, just short of a gas station.

It was then that Peterson pronounced his flying career over.

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“You stupid [expletive],” the transcript shows he said.

After the plane stopped--without catching fire, although the fire warning sounded in the cockpit--Peterson got on the public address system and told the shaken passengers, “Folks, remain seated, remain seated; we’re all right.”

Several minutes later he called the Burbank tower and said, “You better send the emergency equipment over, uh, uh, we went through the barrier.”

“Affirmative,” the tower answered, “They should already be over there.”

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“Thank you,” the pilot replied.

“They’re comin’ up Hollywood Way, sir,” a tower controller said. “They’ll be comin’ up off your left wing.”

”. . . OK, thank you. We’re evacuating the aircraft at this time.”

In his interview with the NTSB, Peterson attributed the “high and hot” landing to a strong tail wind and the fact that air traffic controllers had instructed him to maintain an air speed of at least 230 knots during an earlier part of the approach.

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He and Erwin also indicated they had been concerned about an airliner that was landing ahead of them. Erwin said that just before landing he noticed they seemed to be overtaking the other plane and worried that it might not clear the runway before they touched down.

Erwin said that on approach he had been concerned that the plane seemed to be high and traveling faster than it should have been, but said nothing to the captain.

Indeed, Erwin seemed almost frozen as the accident unfolded, acknowledging that he had not read out a checklist or announced altitude points at prescribed points as the plane neared the runway.

“Asked if he had made the callouts on the accident flight, he said, ‘No, I don’t think so. Not sure. I’d be surprised if I did,’ ” the interview report said.

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As the plane tore down the runway past the Southwest gates, Erwin said he joined Peterson in jamming down on the brake “as hard as I could.”

A half an hour or so before reaching Burbank, the pilot and co-pilot had talked about a near-catastrophe aboard another airliner. Cockpit tapes of that flight were being played as a warning to other pilots, the first officer told Peterson.

Erwin described the frantic scene in the cockpit as members of the crew shouted warnings to the pilot.

“Ah, man,” Peterson said, “that had to be really scary.”

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And at one point during the late stages of the flight, when they temporarily lost radio contact with controllers, Peterson quipped: “OK, too low, I guess . . . We’ll just be a surprise.”

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Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein and Eric Malnic, in Los Angeles, contributed to this story.


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