WASHINGTON (AP) -- The pilot of a Federal Express cargo jet flying from Anchorage to Newark, N.J., in 1997 miscalculated the length of his landing runway, then missed a chance to abort a hard landing before the jet cartwheeled in flames, federal investigators say.
At a hearing Tuesday, National Transportation Safety Board experts said that when the plane first hit the Newark runway and bounced, the FedEx pilot could have channeled momentum from the bounce into a take off for a ''go-around'' -- a second approach to land at the airport.
Instead, he reacted to the bounce by pushing the nose of the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 toward the ground and, perhaps inadvertently, to the right.
The second, awkward landing cracked a connection of the right wing, causing a fuel leak and fire as the plane tumbled to a stop.
''Unfortunately, the pilot chose the least desirable option of attempting to salvage a landing from a destabilized and worsening condition,'' said Capt. Paul Misencik, chairman of the NTSB's operations group.
The five-member board unanimously declared that the probable cause of the crash was ''the captain's overcontrol of the airplane during the landing and his failure to execute a go-around.''
The captain, Robert M. Freeman, still works for Federal Express but is not flying, company spokeswoman Darlene Faquin said. The first officer, Donald E. Goodin, is flying for Federal Express.
Freeman, Goodin, a visiting pilot sitting in the cockpit and two FedEx employee passengers escaped with minor injuries from the early morning crash on July 31, 1997, by crawling to safety through a cockpit window.
Freeman and Goodin also came under scrutiny by the NTSB.
Their first error came several minutes before approaching Newark Airport, when they compared data from a laptop computer and a printed form to conclude they had a tight landing space.
''The crew erroneously perceived that their stopping margin on the runway was an uncomfortable 780 feet,'' said Robert Benzon, the lead NTSB investigator. ''Had they followed the correct procedure ... they would have determined that their actual stopping margin was 1,680 feet.''
The flight was normal until about 18 feet above the runway, when the captain reacted to a minor drop in the plane's nose by pulling it up abruptly. The first hard landing followed moments later.
The NTSB examined larger issues, such as whether crowded skies and tight schedules make pilots reluctant to perform a go-around.
''Try this at O'Hare (Airport in Chicago) at 8 a.m. and you're going to kind of foul things up for a while,'' Benzon said.
NTSB investigator Tom Lasseigne said more than four hours passed before the incident commander at the Newark airport learned from FedEx that the plane was carrying hazardous materials, including aerosols, a corrosive material and flammable liquids.
FedEx is developing a new hazardous material tracking system that will allow immediate access to flight manifests via computer.
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National Transportation Safety Board: http://www.ntsb.gov
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