Yesterday, the right wing tip of American Eagle flight 5786 struck the runway as the plane was landing at the McAllen International Airport. The incident occurred just before noon after a short flight from DFW International Airport. The flight was being operated by Mesa Airlines on behalf of American Eagle. Various news agencies have posted pictures of the exact moment of the wing strike. According to news reports, no one was injured, and the plane was able to taxi to the gate and disembark the passengers normally. The airplane, however, has been grounded for inspections and repairs.
Neither the NTSB nor the FAA has commented publicly on the incident, and they may not ever issue a statement or report since this was, fortunately, a relatively minor incident. But fortunate is the operative word. These types of occurrences are potentially tragic (and can turn so very quickly) and continue to raise serious concerns about the qualifications and training of pilots flying for small contract carriers such as Mesa Airlines.
Indeed, three relatively recent regional airline crashes were directly attributed to inappropriate pilot actions in the cockpit: (1) on October 19, 2004, a Corporate Airlines plane flying under contract with American Airlines crashed just outside of Kirksville, Missouri killing 13 and seriously injuring 2; (2) on August 27, 2006, a Comair jet flying for Delta Airlines crashed near Lexington, Kentucky, killing 49; and (3) on February 12, 2009, a Colgan Air twin turbo-prop plane flying for Continental Airlines crashed near Buffalo, New York killing 49.
Even though no one was harmed in yesterday’s incident, a quarter of an ounce of bad luck could have drastically reversed the outcome. And, from what we can tell, this unnecessary trip to the edge of tragedy was due to pilot error (just like the 3 flights noted above). The only explanation we have seen is that the pilot over-reacted to a 7 mph crosswind (which is a wind blowing across the runway from one side or the other) while landing. A properly trained and adequately skilled pilot, however, should not have any trouble landing with such a light crosswind. The pilot of that flight will no doubt be sent for additional training or perhaps sent packing altogether, but these are not risks that the flying public should have to endure. The FAA and the major airlines (who outsource to these regional operators) should do a whole lot more to ensure that contract carriers operate safely.