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United pilot inexperienced in landings nearly crashed 747

Saturday, March 20, 1999

By Glen Johnson, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - A United Airlines jumbo jet that lost power in an engine during takeoff from San Francisco dipped low enough that its thunderous roar set off car alarms and sent airport neighbors scurrying for cover.

The pilot of the Boeing 747 so badly mishandled the recovery last summer that the plane cleared the 1,576-foot-high San Bruno Mountain, a few miles to the north, by only 100 feet, government and airline officials said.

"Pull up! Pull up!" shouted other pilots in the cockpit, as the electronic voice in the plane's ground-proximity device warned: "Terrain! Terrain!"

Now the Federal Aviation Administration has ordered new training for the airline's long-haul pilots. While all pilots must make at least three takeoffs and landings every 90 days, the crews that fly United's long trips must now make at least one set of them in a real plane, not on the flight simulators routinely used.

The problem is a simple one: Long trips entail a lot of flying but only one set of takeoffs and landings. Also, airlines send two crews to guard against pilot fatigue, so pilots sitting at the controls for departure aren't there for arrival.

Because of that division of labor, the pilot flying United Flight 863 last summer had made only one takeoff and landing in a real plane during the previous year. When real trouble hit, government and airline investigators found, he reacted wrongly.

Details on what happened June 28 at San Francisco International Airport surfaced yesterday in The Wall Street Journal. Because the pilots reported the incident through a voluntary self-disclosure program, neither the airline nor the government would comment extensively.

The newspaper's account was gleaned through interviews and information gained via the Freedom of Information Act.

The flight was to be flown in one of the most modern planes in the sky, the Boeing 747-400. It is distinctive because it has a lengthy upper deck and turned-up wingtips.

The plane was destined for Sydney, Australia, with 307 people aboard. Up on the flight deck, there were two sets of pilots, one to relieve the other in flight. Both sets normally rest in bunks just off the flight deck.

As Flight 863 lifted off the runway for its 14-hour, 25-minute journey, it was hit with one of the most practiced airplane emergencies, a failed engine. The plane's right inboard engine, one of four mounted on the wings, stalled. The co-pilot, who was flying the plane, correctly responded by shutting it down.

What he did next created near-fatal problems.

Because it was overpowered on the left, the plane started to turn to the right. The correct response would have been stepping on the left rudder pedal, which would straighten the nose. Instead the pilot aboard Flight 863 turned the control wheel to the left. That deployed panels on the plane's wing, reducing its lift.

Suddenly the stick began to shake, an automatic warning indicating that a loss of lift is imminent. "Push down! Push down!" the extra flight crew yelled, which would have implemented a tactic to gain speed.

By then the plane was off course and headed for San Bruno Mountain. Now the ground-proximity device was belching its warning.

Although the plane cleared the mountain, it startled nearby residents.

"I thought I was going to have to go under the couch," the Journal quoted one as saying.

The captain soon took control and landed the plane safely back at the airport.

In response to the near collision, United has filmed the scenario in a simulator and shown the videotape to its 9,500 pilots. It has also increased the frequency of refresher training for its 747-400 crews to twice a year, instead of once.

In addition, the airline formed a committee to study possible changes in how its long-haul aircraft should be manned. "When we have a situation that's not routine, we try to use it to learn lessons," airline spokesman Andy Plews told The Associated Press.

The FAA is satisfied with the changes and the real flight training it has ordered. It has no plans to change the rule that allows other airlines to complete the mandatory takeoff-and-landing practice in simulators. "Each airline is different, and our experience is that with other airlines, which may not have as many long-haul flights, it may not be a problem for them," agency spokeswoman Alison Duquette said.

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