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Sun, Feb 19, 2023

AAL Flight 106 Pilots to Testify Before NTSB

After Due Consideration …

After much ado and protracted posturing on the parts of the Allied Pilots Association and U.S. federal agencies, the pilots of American Airlines Flight 106 has collectively conceded to appear before representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for purpose of offering testimony pertaining to a 13 January 2023 runway incursion incident at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).

Repeated refusals by the Flight 106 pilots to grant post-incident interviews to NTSB investigators compelled the Board to threaten the aviators with subpoenas.  

Notwithstanding previous assertions that recorded interviews undermine the investigative process, the Allied Pilots Association—the labor union by which American Airlines pilots are represented—stated on 17 February that the interviews would proceed.

Allied Pilots Association spokesman Dennis Tajer remarked: “The pilots intend to appear for their interviews in accordance with the subpoenas. All parties to the investigation [excepting the NTSB] are prohibited from speaking about the investigation while it is pending under NTSB rules.”

On 10 February 2023, the NTSB issued a statement pertaining to and defending the use of recorded interviews in aviation accident investigations.

The Board’s statement cited a 13 January 2023 incident in which American Airlines Flight 106—a Boeing 777-200 departing New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) bound for London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR)—crossed JFK’s Runway 4L without Air Traffic Control (ATC) clearance. The resultant runway incursion compelled the flight-crew of Delta Air Lines Flight 1943, a Boeing 737-900ER departing for the Dominican capital city of Santo Domingo (SDQ) to abort a take-off on JFK Runway 4L.

The American Airlines flight had been instructed by JFK ground control to proceed to Runway 4L via taxiway K. However, when the American 777 reached the intersection, the aircraft continued on to taxiway J, crossing runway Runway 4L without clearance, and in so doing placing itself in the path of the oncoming Delta 737—which had begun its take-off roll and attained a speed of eighty-knots.

A JFK air traffic controller immediately canceled Delta 1943’s take-off clearance, and the 737 flight-crew commenced aborting the take-off, but not before the aircraft had attained a speed of nearly one-hundred-knots. The perspicacity and skill of the air traffic controller and the Delta flight-crew saw Flight 1943 brought to a controlled halt approximately five-hundred-feet south of taxiway J.

The NTSB subsequently conducted interviews with JFK Air Traffic Controllers, received statements from the Delta flight-crew, and retrieved the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and Flight Data Recorder (FDR) data from both aircraft. Written statements from the Delta crew were reviewed, and the board determined in its preliminary report that subject statements contained sufficient information for NTSB investigative purposes.

Contrariwise, the CVR data from American Airlines Flight 106 was unavailable to investigators insomuch as contemporary cockpit voice recorders archive only two total hours of audio—after which they overwrite the old data with the subsequent two hours of cockpit dialogue. Ergo, the Flight 106 CVR record of the JFK runway incursion recording was overwritten during the approximately seven-hour flight to London.

The NTSB, in the absence of Flight 106’s CVR data, requested the aircraft’s flight-crew to submit testimonials of their recollections of the departure incident. The Board contended that such transcripts are of particular importance in the absence of germane cockpit voice recordings.

On three separate occasions, the NTSB attempted unsuccessfully to interview the Flight 106 aircrew, and in each instance, the pilots refused, asserting a common aversion to having their statements audio-recorded for transcription.

On behalf of the Flight 106 flight-crew, a representative of the Allied Pilots Association informed the NTSB—initially—that the crew would not consent to participate in audio-recorded interviews. The union argued interviews were vital to continuing aviation safety, but objected to the use of electronic recording devices, stating:

"We join in the goal of creating an accurate record of all interviews conducted in the course of an investigation. However, we firmly believe the introduction of electronic recording devices into witness interviews is more likely to hinder the investigation process than it is to improve it.

"Not only may the recording of interviews lead to less candid responses from those witnesses who may choose to proceed under such requirements, but the existence and potential availability of interview recordings upon conclusion of an investigation will tend to lead many otherwise willing crew members to elect not to participate in interviews at all"

Nevertheless, the NTSB maintained its contention that meaningful investigation of the 13 January JFK runway incursion was largely contingent upon flight-crew testimony, and therefore required that the American Airlines Flight 106 pilots be interviewed and their testimony audio-recorded and transcribed by a court reporter.

“When necessary for an investigation, the NTSB records and transcribes interviews to ensure the highest level of accuracy and completeness of this critical evidence,” the Board set forth.

“This longstanding practice has included numerous past investigations involving commercial airlines. NTSB investigators frequently use recording devices in interviews, particularly with those who had roles in operating the equipment involved in the accident or incident.

“The audio from the American Airlines Flight 106 CVR was unavailable to investigators because the CVR only records two hours of audio. The recording of the event was overwritten during the AA 106 flight to London which departed shortly after the incursion. The transcripts of each flight crew-member’s account of the activities and conversation leading up to the runway incursion is particularly important in the absence of a cockpit voice recording.”

In 2018, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration require commercial air carriers to equip their aircraft with CVRs capable of recording at least 25-hours of audio. (See NTSB recommendation A-18-030 and A-18-31).

FMI: www.ntsb.gov

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