September 20th 1989: A Deadly Day For USAir

Today marks 32 years since the crash of USAir Flight 5050. On September 20th, 1989, a Boeing 737-400 took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, but the crew suddenly aborted takeoff, sending the aircraft skidding into Bowery Bay, off the East River, killing two passengers.

Rescue workers in boats search for survivors in th
The 737’s fuselage broke into three sections following the crash. Photo: Getty Images

The crew

In total, 57 customers and six crew members were on the plane that was heading to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The flight’s captain that day was Michael Martin. His first officer was Constantine Kleissas. Notably, neither of them had formal training in cockpit resource management. Additionally, emergency processes weren’t discussed despite the poor weather conditions that day.

A sudden decision

After hearing a loud bang, the flight deck crew attempted to abort the aircraft’s takeoff. Sadly, when doing so, they weren’t able to stop the plane before the end of the airport’s runway 31.

The last words on the recorder were “At 11:21 and 3 seconds, USAir Flight 5050 is aborting.” Subsequently, the narrowbody ended up in the water.

“As the first officer began the takeoff on runway 31, he felt the airplane drift left. The captain noticed the left drift also and used the nosewheel tiller to help steer. As the takeoff run progressed, the aircrew heard a “bang” and a continual rumbling noise. The captain then took over and rejected the takeoff but did not stop the airplane before running off the end of the runway into Bowery Bay. Instrument flight conditions prevailed at the time and the runway was wet,” The aircraft accident report shared by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) states.

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the captain’s failure to exercise his command authority in a timely manner to reject the takeoff or take sufficient control to continue the takeoff, which was initiated with a mistrimmed rudder. Also causal was the captain’s failure to detect the mistrimmed rudder before the takeoff was attempted.”

Michael Martin was hired by Piedmont Airlines in 1984. Photo: Torsten Maiwald via Wikimedia Commons

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The aftermath

All the plane’s exits, apart from the L1 door and L2 door, were used for evacuation. L1 couldn’t be opened, and water started to enter L2 when opened. The flight attendants managed to successfully evacuate most passengers. However, two passengers were trapped in 21F and 22A. They were extricated around 1.5 hours after the crash.

Sadly, two women at the rear of the aircraft died, while 15 others were injured. Both pilots lost their licenses after the accident.

Registration N416US, the 737 involved in the accident wasn’t even a year old when the accident occurred. It was delivered to Piedmont airlines in December 1988 before joining USAir’s fleet in the month before it was split into three.

Boeing 737-400
The 737-400 is the least spotted 737 Classic in the skies today. Photo: Getty Images

The plane’s livery was going through a transition amid a Piedmont absorption into USAir at the time. USAir would then change its name to US Airways in 1997 and the carrier merged with America West in 2005. The US Airways brand was completely discontinued in 2015 after a merger with American Airlines at the end of 2013.

What are your thoughts about this fatal USAir crash on September 20th, 1989? What do you make of the cause of the accident? Let us know what you think in the comment section.