American Airlines Flight 1420 was a flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Little Rock National Airport in USA. On June 1, 1999, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 (registration number 215AA) overran the runway upon landing in Little Rock and crashed. Of the 145 people aboard, the captain and ten passengers died in the crash.

The crashEdit

File:AA1420Little rock weather web.ogv

The pilots of flight 1420 were Captain Richard Buschmann and First Officer Michael Origel.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident report, they learned that the winds were changing direction and that a wind shear alert had sounded on the airport due to a thunderstorm nearby. Air traffic control originally told them to expect Runway 22L for landing, but after the wind direction changed rapidly, Captain Buschmann requested a change to Runway 4R.

As the aircraft approached Runway 4R, a severe thunderstorm arrived over the airport. The controller's last report, prior to the landing, stated that the winds were 330 degrees at 28 knots. That exceeded the MD-82's crosswind limit for landing in reduced visibility on a wet runway. With that information, plus two wind shear reports, the approach should have been abandoned at that point, but Captain Buschmann decided to continue his approach to Runway 4R.

As the aircraft approached Runway 4R, a severe thunderstorm arrived over the airport. The controller's last report, prior to the landing, stated that the winds were 330 degrees at 28 knots. That exceeded the MD-82's crosswind limit for landing in reduced visibility on a wet runway. With that information, plus two wind shear reports, the approach should have been abandoned at that point, but Captain Buschmann decided to continue his approach to Runway 4R.

During their rush to land as soon as possible, both pilots became overloaded with multiple necessary tasks. That led to errors and omissions, which proved to be the final links in the accident chain. Consequently they failed to arm the automatic ground spoiler system (hinged panels on top of the wings). The smooth airflow over the top of the wings is disrupted when the spoilers deploy automatically, as the wheels touch the runway. This negates the lifting ability of the wings, thereby making the wheel brakes more effective by transferring the weight of the aircraft from the wings to its wheels.

File:AA1420Little rock airplane web.ogv

The pilots also failed to arm the auto braking system. Both automatic deployment of the ground spoilers and automatic engagement of the brakes 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.

After landing, First Officer Origel stated, "We're down. We're sliding." The captain then said " Oh No!" Neither pilot observed that the spoilers did not deploy, so there was no attempt to activate them manually. The result was almost no braking at all, since only about 15 percent of the airplane's weight was supported by the main landing gear.[1]

Directional control was lost when Captain Buschmann applied too much reverse thrust, in contradiction to the limits stated in the flight manual.

The aircraft skidded off the far end of the runway at high speed, slammed into a steel walkway with the landing lights for runway 22L and finally came to a stop on the banks of the Arkansas River.

"After departing the end of the runway, the airplane struck several tubes extending outward from the left edge of the instrument landing system (ILS) localizer array, located 411 feet beyond the end of the runway; passed through a chain link security fence and over a rock embankment to a flood plain, located approximately 15 feet below the runway elevation; and collided with the structure supporting the runway 22L approach lighting system." [1]

Such structures are usually frangible - i.e. designed to shear off on impact - but because the approach lights were located on the unstable river bank, they were firmly anchored and the impact destroyed the aircraft. It broke into three pieces and ignited.

Captain Buschmann was killed instantly, when the cockpit impacted a steel walkway attached to the approach lighting system for Runway 22L, and first officer Origel received serious injuries. Ten of the 139 passengers also died.[1]

Rachel Fuller, a passenger who sustained severe burns, died on June 16, following the amputation of her leg.[2]

Of the cabin crew [1]:

  • 3 received serious injuries
  • 1 received minor injuries

Of the surviving passengers [1]:

  • 41 received serious injuries
  • 64 received minor injuries
  • 24 were uninjured

After the accident American Airlines revised its checklist so that pilots would confirm that the spoilers are armed.[3]

File:American Airlines Flight 1420 seat injury chart.svg

Pilot behavior regarding thunderstormsEdit

Experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created a study recording behavior of pilots landing at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport; the researchers checked to see whether pilots land in thunderstorms. Within a total of two thousand thunderstorm encounters, two out of three pilots landed in a thunderstorm. The study states that pilots exhibited more recklessness when they fell behind schedule, if they landed during the night, and if aircraft in front of them also landed in bad weather. Greg Feith, the lead NTSB investigator, said he felt surprised that pilots exhibited this behavior. The MIT study illustrated the industry-wide trends that factored into the Flight 1420 crash. Feith added that the pilots may have exhibited "get there-itis" as the pilots knew that they were approaching their 14 hour duty limits.[3] [4]

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 over the crash 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.

From the beginning Judge Woods separated the passenger cases into two groups: 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, Judge Woods ruled only the domestic passengers would be permitted to pursue punitive damages claims.[5]

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled the probable cause of the crash was: "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."[6]

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."[7]

"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."[7] 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 upholding summary judgment for American Airlines on punitive damages the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit explained:[10]


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 in a lawsuit they filed against the Little Rock National Airport.[11] The jury decided Captain 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 Little Rock National Airport failed to comply with airport safety standards. The Captain's estate presented evidence the spoilers were deployed and malfunctioned (not the captain's fault), and that the aircraft was not in turbulence.[12] The jury rejected the airport's argument that Captain Buschmann was at fault in causing his own death.[11]

It has been stated the jury verdict completely absolved Captain Buschmann of all fault for the crash.[12] However, 1) the National Transportation Safety Board has not changed its probable cause ruling and 2) American Airlines admitted liability for the crash and "paid many millions of dollars in damages to the passengers and their families."[11]

According to a comment made about 10 years after the crash by David Rapoport, a lawyer who was a member of the PSC,[13] "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."[11]


The story of the disaster was featured on the first episode of the Canadian National Geographic Channel show Mayday (known as Air Emergency in the US, Mayday in Ireland and Air Crash Investigation in the UK and the rest of world) entitled "Racing the Storm" or "Fatal Landing". The Weather Channel also detailed the story of the flight on an episode of Storm Stories, as did bio. on the show Flightmares.


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


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 National Transportation Safety Board (2001). "Aircraft Accident Report: Runway Overrun During Landing; American Airlines Flight 1420; McDonnell Douglas MD-82, N215AA; Little Rock, Arkansas; 1 June 1999". Retrieved 23 December 2005.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Racing the Storm" ("Fatal Landing") Mayday.
  4. Template:Cite web
  5. In re Air Crash at Little Rock, Arkansas, on June 1, 1999, 109 F. Supp. 2d 1022, 1024 (E.D. Ark. 2000).
  6. Template:Dead link
  7. 7.0 7.1 In re Aircraft Accident, 231 F. Supp. 2d 852, 855-857 (E.D. Ark. 2002).
  8. In re Aircraft Accident, 231 F. Supp. 2d 852 (E.D. Ark. 2002).
  9. Rustenhaven v. Am. Airlines Inc. (In re Aircraft Accident at Little Rock), 351 F.3d 874, 880-881 (8th Cir. 2003).
  10. Rustenhaven v. Am. Airlines Inc. (In re Aircraft Accident at Little Rock), 351 F.3d 874, 880-881 (8th Cir. Ark. 2003).
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Template:Cite web
  12. 12.0 12.1 Template:Dead link
  13. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named PSC

External linksEdit

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