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Curious Crew Nearly Crashes DC-10

By Patrick Mondout

Have you ever flown a DC-10 at 39,000 feet with 115 passengers on board and been tempted to experiment with autothrottle system - just to see what would happen? In late 1973, a pair of curious National Airlines pilots did and their actions nearly cost everyone on board their lives.

On November 3, 1973, National Airlines Flight 27 was operating as a scheduled passenger flight between Miami and San Francisco with intermediate stops at New Orleans, Houston, and Las Vegas. At about 4:40 p.m., while the aircraft was cruising at 39,000 feet 65 miles southwest of Albuquerque, the No. 3 engine fan assembly disintegrated and its fragments penetrated the fuselage, the Nos. 1 and 2 engine nacelles (which contain those engines), and the right wing area. The resultant damage caused decompression of the aircraft cabin and the loss of certain electrical and hydraulic services.

The flight crew initiated an emergency descent, and the aircraft was landed safely at Albuquerque International Airport 19 minutes after the engine failed. The 115 passengers and 12 crewmembers exited the aircraft by using the emergency slides.

As a result of the accident, one passenger died and 24 persons were treated for smoke inhalation, ear problems, and minor abrasions.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident was the disintegration of the No. 3 engine fan assembly as a result of an interaction between the fan blade tips and the fan case. The fan-tip rub condition was caused by the acceleration of the engine to an abnormally high fan speed which initiated a multiwave, vibratory resonance within the fan section of the engine. The precise reason or reasons for the acceleration and the onset of the destructive vibration could not be determined conclusively.

National DC-10-10

A National DC-10-10 similar to the one involved in this incident, as seen at LAX in the mid Super70s..

Image courtesy of AirNikon. Find more of his photos at Airliners.net

 

You want to try it and see?

However, it is clear that the captain and flight engineer's irresponsible actions were to blame. They were experimenting with the autothrottle system, which supplied the instruments that measure the rotational speed of each engine's low pressure compressor. The cockpit voice recording contains the following conversation just prior to the number 3 engine exploding:

Flight Engineer: "Wonder, wonder if you pull the N1 tach will that, -- autothrottle respond to N1?"
Captain: "Gee, I don't know."
Flight Engineer
: "You want to try it and see?"
Captain William Brookes, who had been a National Airlines pilot since 1946 and who should have known better responds, "Yeah, let's see here."
Flight Engineer: "You're on speed right now though."
Captain: "Yeah."
Flight Engineer: "You know what I mean if your annunciated speed - if you got, ---"
Captain: "Still got 'em."
Flight Engineer: "Well - - haven't got it -"
Captain: "There it is."
Flight Engineer: "I guess it does."
Captain: "Yeah, I guess it does - right on the nose."

[At the instant he says the word "nose" there is the sound of the number 3 engine exploding followed by ratcheting sounds.]

Captain: "[expletive deleted] what was that?"

By playing with the autothrottle controls - in what amounted to an in-flight failure-analysis test of the autothrottle system - the crew managed to produce a condition where the engines were pushed to higher rotation speeds than they were designed for. According to audio analysis of the CVR tape, all three engines surged (#1 to 105%, #2 to 107% and number 3, which failed, to 110%). 

Pieces of the engine fanblades struck the fuselage breaking a window near seat 17H. According to a witness, the occupant of the seat was partially forced through the window opening and was temporarily retained in this position by his seatbelt. Efforts to pull the passenger back into the airplane by another passenger were unsuccessful, and the occupant of seat 17H was subsequently forced entirely through the cabin window.

The New Mexico State Police and local organizations searched extensively for the missing passenger. A computer analysis was made of the possible falling trajectories, which narrowed the search pattern. However, the search effort was unsuccessful, and the body of the passenger was not recovered.

The plane made an emergency landing at Albuquerque International Airport. It was repaired and was later flown by Pan Am (as Clipper Meteor) through 1984. It was scrapped in mid-2002.

A picture of this aircraft is here.

Source: Adapted from National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report NTSB-AAR-75-2.

National 27 at a Glance
AirlineNational
DateNovember 3, 1973
Flight number27
Registration NumberN60NA
Crew Fatalities0 of 12
Passenger Fatalities1 of 116
Total Fatalities1 of 128

Air Safety References:
Bartelski, Jan. Disasters in the Air: Mysterious Air Disasters Explained. Airlife Publishing: England, 2001.
Beaty, David. The Naked Pilot: The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents. Airlife Publishing: England, 1996.
Cushing, Steven. Fatal Words: Communication Clashes and Aircraft Crashes University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1997.
Faith, Nicholas. Black Box: The Air-Crash Detectives-Why Air Safety Is No Accident. Motorbooks International, 1997.
Gero, David. Aviation Disasters: The World's Major Civil Airliner Crashes Since 1950. Sutton, 2003.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 1). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1995.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 2). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1996.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 3). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1999.
Krause, Shari Stamford. Aircraft Safety: Accident Investigations, Analyses & Applications. McGraw Hill, New York, 1996.
Macpherson, Malcolm. The Black Box : All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts Of In-flight Accidents. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
Macpherson, Malcolm. On a Wing and a Prayer: Interviews with Airline Disaster Survivors. Perennial, 2002.
Owen, David. Air Accident Investigation, 2nd Edition. Motorbooks International, 2002.
Stewart, Stanley. Emergency! - Crisis on the Flight Deck, 2nd Edition. Airlife Publishing, England, 2003.
Walters, James M. Aircraft Accident Analysis: Final Reports. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2000.
Wells, Alexander T. Commercial Aviation Safety, 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2001.

 

Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about this crash? Were you a witness? Have you any compelling stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

Your Memories Shared!

"My father Alan Goodman worked for an engineering firm at the Albuquerque Sun Port in 1973. He was at the airport the day that the plane came in for a landing. He had his camera with him, and took many pictures of the plane both on the outside and inside just as it had landed. If you are interested, we have copies of the outside damage of the aircraft; we are willing to forward several copies via the internet to you. In addition, several interesting facts about the aircraft you might like to read and research about.

First: The airline “National” had at one point a contest involving the stewardesses, and who was the favorite among the passengers. The winners would have an aircraft named after them. In this case, the aircraft was named “Barbara.”

Second: The passenger who was killed was sitting in his seat, buckled in and was sucked out of the window. He weighed over 200 lbs, and the window is approx 1’x2’. As far as I know, he was never found.

Third: When the engine exploded, it sent shrapnel into the engine on the other side of the aircraft. According to FAA officials, the other engine had only 1 minute of oil left in reserve.

Forth: Although my father did see and took pictures of the interior of the aircraft including the cockpit, the negatives, which he handed over to the FAA, were never returned. His account of the incident told of the oxygen masks hanging down from every point in the passenger area, and every conceivable book on board pertaining to flight of the aircraft, spewn all over the cockpit floor.

Fifth: (This is one that you may have to research.) According to people I have known, the engine was one that was made here in Albuquerque, and was of the same make and design of the engine that came apart during flight over Oklahoma in 1986. That plane was the one that crashed on the runway and a number of people were killed. I throw that in to see if that information is correct or not.

He wanted more information about what the pilots were doing, and also what eventually happened to them. Please let me know if you are interested in showing the pictures.

Thank you. [Editor's note: Peter, you did not leave any contact information. I'd love to publish your photos here.]"

--Peter Goodman.


 

DISASTER DETAILS

Airline: National

Location: Over New Mexico

Aircraft: McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10

Date: November 3, 1973

Total Fatalities: 1 of 128



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