Records show USAir safety and training lapses


As USAir Flight 565 reached its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet last Feb. 22, the pilots made a chilling discovery: Their DC-9, carrying 62 passengers from Washington to Boston, might not have enough fuel to reach its destination.

Radioing for an emergency landing at New York's La Guardia Airport, the pilots claimed that the plane had engine trouble.

Only after the jet had landed safely and the ground crew had discovered the fuel situation did the captain acknowledge that there was no engine problem. Behind schedule in Washington, workers had neglected to refuel the plane and the pilots had not checked the gauges before takeoff.

The error and attempted concealment from the federal authorities was one of a number of safety and training lapses uncovered in a New York Times examination of USAir undertaken after a USAir Boeing 737 crashed near Pittsburgh on Sept. 8, killing 132 people.

The crash, the worst aviation disaster in this country since 1987, was the fifth for USAir since 1989, the worst record of any major U.S. airline in more than 20 years.

After the September crash, federal officials and USAir executives rushed to defend the safety of the airline. The Federal Aviation Administration said that USAir met all its safety requirements. USAir executives said that its accidents were not connected and that there was no reason to draw negative conclusions about safety. They strongly denied that financial troubles had had any impact on safety.

"When it comes to safety, we are well within the mean range, and better than some," Seth E. Schofield, USAir's chairman and chief executive, said in an interview. "The reality is that if I thought the airline was unsafe, I would ground every plane."

But a less reassuring portrait of the nation's sixth-largest and busiest airline emerges from thousands of pages of federal safety records and court files covering the past five years that were examined by the Times.

For example, the Flight 565 fuel scare was not an isolated incident. Records show nine instances in which USAir planes left the gate without enough fuel since the airline eliminated two pre-flight refueling checks 16 months ago. The cutback was made to save time, despite concerns expressed by the FAA.

In addition, interviews with safety experts and the analysis of court files and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act found the following:

* Despite USAir's insistence that its five fatal accidents since 1989 are not connected, failures by pilots to follow federal and airline regulations were factors in two crashes at La Guardia and pilot actions are under scrutiny in a third, the crash of a DC-9 during a thunderstorm in Charlotte, N.C., last July 2.

* A national team of FAA inspectors last year found more than 40 deficiencies in USAir's flight operations and training programs for its more than 5,000 pilots. One problem involved falsely certifying that a captain had completed training to avoid the violent downdrafts known as wind shear. Investigators in the Charlotte accident have questioned whether the pilots reacted properly to wind shear.

* USAir is more than $2 billion in debt and losing $2 million a day, causing some employees to feel pressure to keep planes flying. In one incident, a USAir maintenance supervisor said he had tried to save the company money by allowing a plane to fly even though a mandatory warning system was inoperative. In another case, USAir violated FAA regulations by permitting a plane to fly for 13 days without proper repairs to a dented and cracked wing flap.

* Concerned by the Charlotte crash, FAA officials met with USAir executives to discuss improving safety and training last Aug. 29. Although USAir and FAA officials described the session as friendly, others said that the airline had been put on notice to strengthen its training and safety programs. Ten days after the meeting, the USAir 737 crashed near Pittsburgh.

Jim Burnett, who served nearly a decade as a member and chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, the independent federal agency that investigates accidents, said there might be a connection between three of the five USAir crashes.

"From the issues of pilot training and cockpit discipline, you could potentially have a connection between three there," said Mr. Burnett, now a lawyer in Arkansas. "The NTSB members are failing to do their job if they fail to look at those lines and see if they make a picture."

In a letter to the Times on Friday, James T. Lloyd, USAir's executive vice president and general counsel, said:

"Because of this intense regulatory scrutiny, and because of our own determination to check, recheck and report every aspect of our operations, it is possible to look through the tens of thousands of reports that accumulate over time and build a picture that distorts the fundamental truths.

"Any time you have millions of takeoffs and landings and 45,000 employees, and you put them under a microscope, you will find some irregularities. But this does not mean the company is lax, and, in fact, it means that if there is a problem, we find it and we fix it."

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