updated 6/6/2005 7:12:12 AM ET 2005-06-06T11:12:12

The jury has spoken about who was to blame for the 1999 crash of an American Airlines jet that killed 11 people, but the National Transportation Safety Board isn’t listening.

The widow of Capt. Richard Buschmann won more than $2.1 million in a federal court last week when her lawyer contested the NTSB’s 2001 assessment that the pilot was to blame. Yet the NTSB is standing by its report.

The jury’s decision faulted Little Rock National Airport and a runway that didn’t fully meet safety guidelines. They mainly agreed with Susan Buschmann’s argument that conditions at the airport, not Buschmann’s decision to land in a severe thunderstorm, was the main cause of his death. Ten others also were killed.

The NTSB said its conclusions were reached by aviation experts — not 11 random people from varied backgrounds. “This is a separate process with ... different competencies involved,” NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm said.

Pilot’s widow successfully sued airport
Susan Buschmann, of Naperville, Ill., sued the airport and its governing board, saying her husband likely would have survived the crash if the airport fully met Federal Aviation Administration safety guidelines. The airport’s defense echoed NTSB statements that Buschmann made mistakes as Flight 1420 descended into Little Rock while lightning cracked around his plane.

“The probable causes of this accident were 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” to slow the plane, the NTSB said in its 2001 report on the accident.

But part of Susan Buschmann’s lawyer’s argument at trial was that the lever to set the spoilers was found in the activated position and documents showed the airline hadn’t addressed several reports of spoiler malfunctions. Attorney Arthur Wolk said that made the NTSB report suspect.

Schlamm said no one asked the NTSB to reconsider its report, which came out four months after Mrs. Buschmann filed her lawsuit blaming the airport for her husband’s death.

‘We push our agenda’
The NTSB said it was unlikely that any note would be made of the jury’s verdict. By law, Schlamm said, the safety board is set up to minimize involvement with the court system.

“We’re prohibited from giving opinions or testimony in civil trials,” Schlamm said. The board’s primary duty, he said, is to promote safety. “We push our agenda.”

Flight 1420 flew from Dallas to Little Rock late on June 1, 1999, between lines of storms that Buschmann, on the cockpit voice recorder, described as having a “bowling alley” effect.

Less than a half-hour before landing, he pointed out to passengers that lightning was providing “quite a light show” to the west of the plane. Co-pilot Michael Origel said privately to Buschmann, “I say we get down as soon as we can.”

Plane broke apart after fast approach
Flight controllers told Buschmann and Origel that heavy rain was buffeting Runway 4R; at the same time, crosswinds began to exceed American Airlines’ guidelines for landing on a wet runway. Origel told investigators he reached for a flight manual to look up crosswind limits, but that Buschmann signaled him to put it away.

Without the spoilers activated, Flight 1420 couldn’t benefit from their added drag and slid after landing. The MD-82 jet ran off the north end of Runway 4R at 90 mph, hit an approach light structure, broke apart and caught fire.

The approach lights were erected 453 feet off the runway despite FAA guidelines calling for a 1,000-foot-deep safety zone. The airport said the runway’s proximity to the Arkansas River prevented it from setting the lights farther back, though the lights are now outside of the safety apron.

Susan Buschmann said she believed the juror’s decision exonerated her husband. The airport, whose insurance company will cover the award, said it has not yet decided whether to appeal.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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