A DC-9 pilot, making his first flight without another pilot observing since his return last week from a five-year medical leave, complained he was lost in the fog moments before his plane collided with another jetliner, killing eight people, according to a transcript obtained by NBC.
Also, Northwest Airlines reported the plane's first officer had joined the airline just last March.
Twenty-four people were injured, two critically, in the fiery collision between the DC-9 and a Boeing 727, both operated by Northwest, at Detroit Metropolitan Airport Monday. The 727 was rolling down a foggy runway toward takeoff when the DC-9 pulled in front of it. NBC reported Tuesday that it had obtained a partial transcript of a conversation between DC-9 pilot William Lovelace and an air traffic controller.
According to the transcript, the controller asked Lovelace to verify the position of the DC-9, which was supposed to be heading toward a runway for takeoff.
"Uh, we're not sure. It's so foggy out here. We're completely stuck here," Lovelace said. "Look's like we're on 21-Center here."
"If you're on 21-Center, exit that runway immediately, sir," the controller said.
Moments later the planes collided.
The pilots of both planes survived the collision, and the black box recordings of cockpit conversations were being analyzed in Washington.
Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board refused to confirm the conversation between the pilot and the controller, but one of them, John Lauber, acknowledged that the DC-9 crew "had difficulty in keeping track of where they were. There were numerous communications between the aircraft and the air traffic control facilities with regard to that taxiway and exactly where they were."
Lauber said the crew of a third Northwest airliner also reported overhearing someone tell the tower he didn't know where he was. But he said it was not known whether the communication came from the DC-9.
Lovelace, 52, of Phoenix, in 1985 had taken a five-year medical leave for treatment of kidney stones, said Northwest spokesman Bob Gibbons.
"Kidney stones may sound like a little thing, but FAA requirements for getting a medical certificate are pretty rigorous," said another Northwest spokesman, Doug Miller.
On Oct. 22, Lovelace returned for training. He underwent two weeks of ground school and 13 hours of simulator flying before being cleared to return to work, Gibbons said. He made 12 flights, five of them out of the Detroit airport, between Nov. 25 and 30, accompanied by a pilot observer.
Two weeks before returning, he was declared bankrupt by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Phoenix. According to his application, Lovelace identified himself as a "disabled pilot" and reported assets of $106,105 and debts of $152,420.
On the application, Lovelace reported receiving $50,544 in retirement benefits during each of the last two years.
Lovelace's interest in woodworking led him to open a small gift shop, Candles & Scents, near his home. He sold the business in early 1989, according to court records.
Lovelace and cockpit crew members from both jets have been grounded "while this investigation is going on," said Northwest spokesman Alan Muncaster. The move is normal procedure after an accident, and each crew member's status will be evaluated after the investigation.
Capt. Lovelace's first officer, James F. Schifferns, 37, of Spokane, Wash., was hired in March after a 20-year military career in which he flew a variety of planes, including B-52 bombers, Northwest said. He had 150 hours flying with the airline.
Investigators established that Lovelace was at the controls -- without an observer for the first time since returning -- when the DC-9 ran into the Boeing 727 racing for takeoff. The 727 was piloted by Capt. Robert Ouellette, 42, of Dallas.
The DC-9 on Monday was bound for Pittsburgh with 43 people aboard. The 727 was bound for Memphis with 153 people.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association estimated visibility at a quarter mile. Thomas Murphy, president of the association's Detroit local, said fog was so thick that controllers couldn't see the crash from the tower and assumed at first they had gotten the DC-9 out of the way in time.
The crash ripped the 727's right wing off and tore loose the DC-9's rear engine, sparking a fireball that swept the DC-9 cabin.
No one aboard the 727 was injured, but fumes from the fire killed eight people on the DC-9, said Wayne County Chief Medical Examiner Bader Cassin.
Seven victims remain hospitalized.