The same failure by pilots to do a routine but critical task that likely led to a fatal crash in Madrid last summer has happened dozens of times in the United States since 2000, according to government data analyzed by USA TODAY.
Spanair Flight JK5022 never got more than a few feet off the ground on Aug. 20 after its pilots failed to set the wing flaps and slats before the flight, according to a preliminary report by Spanish investigators. The crash killed 154 people.
Since 2000, pilots in the USA have reported a failure to properly set the wings for takeoff 55 times, according to reports filed with a NASA aviation safety database. The flaps and slats expand the size of the wing, giving a plane more lift. Without them, aircraft face severe danger trying to take off.
In most cases, the mistakes were caught by a warning system that serves as a last defense against accidents. (The warning horn did not sound in the Madrid crash.) Several U.S. cases were nearly catastrophic, including a 2005 incident at Washington Reagan National Airport in which pilots lifted off without flaps and nearly plunged to the ground, pilots told NASA. The agency does not identify pilots or airlines.
"This represents a disturbing trend," says Bill Voss, president of the non-profit Flight Safety Foundation. "There are obvious human errors that are being made that take away … layers of safety."
The instances are few compared with the more than 10 million airline flights each year, but Voss and others say the potential for fatal crashes means airlines and regulators need to pay closer attention.
Human errors are one of the most stubborn remaining safety risks in aviation. Errors by pilots or maintenance workers caused all nine fatal airline accidents in the U.S. since 2000, according to National Transportation Safety Board data.
In 1987 and 1988, two U.S. crashes that were caused by pilot failures to set the flaps claimed 170 lives. Since then, changes have been made to ensure pilots do not forget the task.
Distractions occasionally foil those protections, according to the NASA reports. In October 2006, the crew of a Boeing 757 forgot to set flaps and slats in Orlando. The co-pilot said they were distracted by a runway change, said the NASA report.
"Event could have been catastrophic," the pilot said, "had it not been for (the) takeoff warning horn."