Investigators say a plane carrying the University of Michigan men’s basketball team skidded off a runway in 2017 after a jammed part prevented pilots from tilting the nose upward during takeoff.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday that the pilots could not have recognized the mechanical problem on the Boeing MD-83 before the accident at an airport near Ypsilanti Township, Michigan.
The board said the pilots waited too long after reaching critical speed to halt their takeoff. However, after examining the plane’s flight data recorder the board concluded that the mechanical problem wasn’t apparent to the captain until it was too late to stop on the runway. It said his decision against taking off was “appropriate.”
“These two pilots did everything right after things started to go very wrong,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt.
The board said the plane was speeding down the runway at 158 mph when the captain aborted the takeoff. The plane was still going 115 mph when it ran off the end of the runway, rolled 950 feet, hit a fence and crossed a paved road before stopping.
The 110 passengers and six crew members used emergency chutes to escape, although one slide failed to inflate. One passenger suffered minor injuries.
The plane, operated by Ameristar Charters, was heavily damaged.
After the accident, the pilots faced criticism for aborting the takeoff after the plane reached the speed where it could no longer stop on the runway. Ameristar said Thursday that the NTSB’s 134-page report justified the decision by the captain, Mark Radloff, who told investigators that when he tried to tilt the plane upward it felt heavy, as if there were a stack of bricks on the nose.
Ameristar Vice President Stacy Muth said Radloff’s decision was quick and correct.
“With a different pilot on this airplane, there might have been people hurt or even killed,” she said in an interview. “All we lost was the airplane.”
The NTSB said the plane was properly maintained, but components in an elevator — a part that pilots adjust to change the pitch or nose direction — jammed because the plane was parked outside a hangar for two days during windy weather.
The board recommended that Boeing modify DC-9 and MD-80-series jets to prevent ground wind from causing elevator components to jam.
Investigators also said Boeing should develop procedures to help pilots check for jammed elevators before takeoff. The Ameristar pilots would have needed a boom or to climb on the plane’s tail to inspect the parts.
The Willow Run Airport, about 30 miles west of Detroit and used mostly for charters and private planes, added a 1,000-foot runoff area during work from 2006 to 2009. The NTSB said the safety feature, which it recommended and the Federal Aviation Administration promoted at many airports, probably prevented a worse outcome for the incident on March 8, 2017.
The Michigan basketball team caught another plane the following day to the Big Ten Conference tournament in Washington, D.C. They won the tournament.