At Midway Airport, 15 Seconds Seems Like Eternity

By Robert Mark on December 18th, 2007

It was snowing the other night when I arrived back at Chicago Midway from Washington DC on AirTran. The cabin was about as noisy as you might expect for a 9 PM arrival, people talking, a few reading lights blazing through the darkness.

I knew something however, that I doubted most of the other people realized. Tonight was just a day short of the two-year anniversary of the night a Southwest Airlines Boeing slid off the end of 31 Center at MDW on landing.

What I had always found simply mind boggling during the the various testimonies and even while reading the NTSB report of the accident later was the time delay in getting the thrust reversers – the buckets we call them – deployed to slow the Boeing.

The report said it took about 15 seconds from touchdown until the reversers opened. Anyone reading the report will figure out pretty quickly that all was not well in the cockpit that night. Whether is was the autobraking system or the reversers that did not work properly is tough to know for certain.

But as I’ve done on a number of other occasions flying into Midway on an airliner since the Southwest accident, I count off the seconds after touchdown just to see where we are when I make it to 15. In almost ever test, my mini-research project shows the aircraft practically turning off the active by the time I reach 15.

Tonight however, the runway was not dry. My guess is we broke out of an indefinite ceiling at about 400 feet in snow, the big heavy wet flakes too. Ahead on the taxiway I could see dozens of yellow lights atop the City of Chicago snow vehicles already plowing the parallel runway and taxiway.

It got very quiet in the cabin as we touched down. I barely had a chance to begin counting, “One one thousand, two …” before the buckets deployed on the AirTran Boeing 717. No fooling around here tonight, those thrust reversers slowed that airplane quickly, despite the snow on the surface. As we turned off the active, I had only made it to the number 11.

As a pilot, I cannot imagine the terror those two pilots experienced in the cockpit of the Southwest Boeing knowing the airplane was still too fast, but also realizing that nothing they were doing seemed able to avoid the inevitable.

There is no overlooking the tragedy of this accident however. A young boy on the ground died in the Midway accident that night. But for better or worse, the post accident system worked and changes were made to prevent the same thing from occurring again. It could all have been much worse.


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