It had all of the elements of a disaster - a Continental Airlines 737-500 jet taking off from a Denver runway Saturday skids and crashes into a ravine, cracking open its left engine, ripping off the landing gear with a ripped fuselage bursting into flames.
Yet all 110 passengers and five crewmembers made it from the smoldering jet safely with the exception of one person seriously injured and another hospitalized in fair condition.
One passengers escaping with his pregnant wife and 13-month old son said it felt like the seats were closing in on him. The evacuation was reported to be orderly.
The weather was cold and winds were reported to be 31 mph. “No other aircraft opted against taking off due to wind” before Flight 1404 said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor to AP.
Some believe the pilot was trying to abort the takeoff, after looking at the tracks on the pavement. The retrieved black box recorders should help tell the story.
This marked the second fiery accident off a runway in three years in which no one died. Air France Airbus A340 with 309 passengers skidded off the runway in Toronto in August, 2005.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) credits the new fire safety rules that were put into place over the past 20 years.
The Flight Safety Foundation says runway accidents are the most common that account for nearly one third of all airline crashes over the last dozen years. They most likely are to occur when a plane lands rather than takeoff.
And accidents are less likely to be due to equipment, since there is so much automation, and more likely due to human error, the group believes.
“During the twelve year period from 1995 to 2007, of the global 393 runway-related accidents involving commercial transports, 96 percent or approximately 19 out of 20, were runway excursions,” according to Dr. Earl Weener, FSF Foundation Fellow. “Those accidents accounted for approximately seventy percent of the fatalities in runway-related accidents,” he says in a statement.
According to data collected over 25 years, there is an average of 3 to 4 overruns involving aircraft month and they are considered the fourth largest cause of airliner fatalities. In 2007 alone, overruns accounted for 220 fatalities. Most occur in poor weather conditions and occur during landings.
Most of the time the aircraft exits the runway at more than 70 knots.
Yet the commercial aviation system in the US is believed to be the safest in the world, the group adds.
According to the International Air Transport Authority (IATA) in 2007, the number of global fatalities declined 19 percent. Almost half of the world-wide accidents took place during a landing, mostly involving a runway excursion.
The U.S. operates approximately 30,000 airline flights daily and has not reported a fatal accident involving transport operations in two years.
Runway safety areas (RSA), space surrounding the runway end are designed to reduce risk if there is an overrun.
As an alternative, Engineered Material Arresting Systems (EMAS), consisting of four foot square panels of crushable concrete installed on the runway overrun to help decelerate an aircraft in an emergency. At present there are 39 EMAS beds installed at 25 airports worldwide, according to ESCO, which makes components for the airline industry.
The Flight Safety Foundation has initiated the Runway Safety Initiative (RSI) to reduce fatal accidents during a runway accident.
The 2007 FAA, Federal Aviation Administration, says that increased traffic is viewed as the principal influence on the number of runway incursions.
Investigators in the Denver disaster will look at a failed engine and brake functions as contributing to the crash. Otherwise weather was clear in the area and the runway was dry, and both pilots have clear records, according to the FAA. #