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NTSB Report: Michigan's 2017 Plane Accident Was A Couple Split-Second Decisions Away From Catastrophe

Photo: Jamie Squire (Getty)

Back in March 2017, the charter plane of the Michigan men’s basketball team aborted takeoff from an airport in Ypsilanti, crashed through a chain link fence beyond the end of the runway, and came to rest in a field beyond a surface road and a ditch beyond the airport boundary. The plane was all trashed up, but everyone aboard survived.

The National Transportation Safety Board this week released their report on the accident, and, my friends, it is terrifying. The pilot of the aircraft, a man named Mark Radloff, made the decision to abandon takeoff after the plane reached “V1,” which is a speed that is determined by a conditions-dependent equation, and is described as “the maximum speed in the takeoff by which a rejected takeoff must be initiated to ensure that a safe stop can be completed within the remaining runway.” In effect, his decision was to crash the plane. But the NTSB found that Radloff’s hand was forced by a mechanical failure that made it impossible for the aircraft’s nose to lift, and which had gone unnoticed altogether prior to the aborted takeoff. The various descriptions in the NTSB report get more frightening as they go along, but this part here makes me want to hide under the bed:

The flight crew positioned the airplane for departure from runway 23L, and, at 1451:12, the check airman called for the captain to begin the takeoff roll. At 1451:55, the check airman called “V1.” Six seconds later (at 1452:01), he called “rotate,” followed 3 seconds later (at 1452:04)by “V2.” At 1452:05, the captain said, “hey, what’s goin’ on?” and, 3 seconds later, “abort.” The check airman stated, “no, not above…” and then “…don’t abort above V1 like that,” and the captain replied, “it wasn’t flying.”

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Radloff, tearing down the runway at flight speed, tried to get the airplane to “rotate” for takeoff, but the nose wouldn’t lift, because something called an “elevator” had been jammed by high, gusting wind while the plane was parked next to an airport hanger for two days. The NTSB report includes a section on “procedures and guidance” for rejected takeoffs, taken from the aircraft operation manual, which note specifically that “in many cases, rejected takeoffs at high speed have had far more negative or catastrophic results than would have been likely if the takeoffs had been continued.” Horrifyingly, NTSB investigators found that the conditions that made the plane incapable of flight could not have been discovered by preexisting protocols prior to the exact moment when Radloff found that the plane “wasn’t flying,” past the point of no return, with the end of the runway and a chainlink fence screaming into view.

But that’s not all! In this case, Radloff—the captain of the flight—was actually being trained on that aircraft by the “check airman,” a condition that the NTSB says made the check airman the “pilot-in-command” of the flight. The check airman, a man named Andreas Gruseus, was therefore at least theoretically empowered to override any decision made by Radloff that put the flight at risk. Gruseus in fact reached for the controls when Radloff called abort—round about the time Gruseus said “no, not above” in the above transcript—but made the split-second, potentially life-or-death decision to follow the competing mandate to let the captain make the abort decision. This could’ve gone very badly!

Had the check airman simply reacted and assumed control of the airplane after the captain decided to reject, the results could have been catastrophic if such action were to further delay the deceleration (at best) or to try to continue the takeoff in an airplane that was incapable of flight. Thus, the NTSB concludes that the check airman’s disciplined adherence to company [standard operating procedures] after the captain called for the rejected takeoff likely prevented further damage to the airplane and reduced the possibility of serious or fatal injuries to the crew and passengers.

The NTSB report is 134 pages long, and a lot of it is very technical and involves stuff like math and physics and multiple legends of abbreviations, plus a dry and lengthy transcript of voice recorder data. But the parts of it that are comprehensible to a layperson are genuinely gripping, and explain in no uncertain terms just how close the Michigan men’s basketball team came to real disaster. Instead they evacuated the grounded plane, flew out the following day, and won a basketball tournament. Here’s the report, if you’re interested.

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