Just two days after Christmas in 2000, an American Eagle commuter flight developed pitch trim problems immediately after takeoff from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The pilots had the controls full forward, yet the aircraft was climbing at “3000 to 6000” feet per minute. All pitch trim controls were inoperative.
Take it from someone who’s been there: when one of the primary flight controls stops responding, it really gets your attention.
Eventually, the flight landed safely at O’Hare. As a pilot, I found this incident interesting for a few reasons. First, there’s a screen capture of the departure controller’s radar screen available, which is rare. Along with the accompanying audio recording of communication between ATC and the flight crew, it makes it possible to see the incident from the “other side of the scope”.
Second, the NTSB report indicates that ten other identical incidents had occured on the Embraer EMB-135LR fleet. It doesn’t address why no corrective action was implemented prior to this.
Third, although the pilots of American Eagle flight 230 followed the appropriate checklist, the Approved Flight Manual procedure was unclear. It said to slow down, but it didn’t say how much. Also, because the pilots thought they had a trim runaway situation, they had pulled the circuit breakers and even if they’d slowed down enough, the trim would have remained inoperative.
I have a zip archive with the Lotus screen capture here. It contains a self-extracting .exe file.
The NTSB full narrative report is here.
There are a couple of lessons here for GA pilots. First, this incident seems to be another one of those “think outside the box” moments when standard procedures and checklist discipline don’t cut it. The pilots of Eagle 230 had to learn to fly all over again, experimenting with spoilers, landing gear, airspeed, and flaps to find the most controllable configuration. It’s at critical moments like these that knowlege of aerodynamics, aircraft systems, and other academic things can pay off in spades. This is something I try to impart to my students.
Second, you’ll notice that there are many times when the approach controller will call Eagle 230 and they won’t respond. I’m sure the PNF (“pilot not flying” — if there was such a thing in this incident!) had his hands full. Flying the airplane always comes first, emergency or not. Talking to ATC is secondary.
All in all, a successful outcome due in large part to the flight crew’s ability to think quickly on their feet and prioritize the workload when it got too high.