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Landing gear mishap nearly catastrophic, pilot says

  • Story Highlights
  • American Airlines reports 23 landing gear problems with MD-80s in recent months
  • Airline says it has identified three separate issues related to extremely cold weather
  • Pilots' union says landing gear malfunction is not strictly a cold weather issue
  • Pilots say airline, FAA not doing enough to find a solution
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By Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston
CNN Special Investigations Unit
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FORT WORTH, Texas (CNN) -- Capt. Sam Mayer says he knew he was in trouble when he heard a noise minutes after takeoff from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on a frigid day last December.

American Airlines MD-80

American Airlines admits landing gear problems. Pilots have refuted claims that issues were due to cold weather.

The American Airlines pilot says the plane's nose gear would not retract and he quickly began circling the Minnesota airport. But freezing temperatures and icy precipitation started to create problems inside the plane, Mayer says.

"Our windshield started to cover with ice from the bottom working its way up," he says.

"As we were running the emergency procedures, there was a pop. Everyone's ears blew out. We realized that we had lost the pressurization of the aircraft at that time."

Within minutes, Mayer managed to bring the airplane safely back to the airport. But when he inspected the exterior of the aircraft, he says the MD-80 jetliner looked like a "popsicle." The malfunctioning nose gear disabled the plane's anti-icing systems, according to Mayer, who says the wings and tail of the plane were freezing over.

Back on the ground, Mayer says he called American's fleet manager and was assured the company was working on the problem. Video Watch as the pilot describes dramatic landing »

CNN has learned that American's fleet of MD-80 planes has recorded 23 landing gear problems in the last few months; several have resulted in emergency landings. Pilots say the Fort Worth-based airline and the Federal Aviation Administration are not doing enough to find a solution.

The latest emergency landing happened in February when the landing gear of American Flight 862 would not retract after the plane took off from Palm Beach International Airport in Florida. The MD-80 with 138 people on board landed safely in Miami after spending two hours in the air burning off fuel.

That emergency landing was just the latest in a string of mishaps related to the front landing gear not retracting on MD-80 jetliners at American.

In a statement to CNN, American spokesman Tim Wagner says the airline has "identified the root causes of the problems and fixed them." American says it has identified "three separate issues with retracting of MD-80 nose landing gear, each of which was related to extremely cold temperatures and precipitation."

But the pilots' union says the problem is not strictly a cold weather issue, since it's happening on planes such as the one in Florida when the same landing gear problem occurred.

According to Wagner's statement, "We have had no similar issues in well over a month. Our fleet of 300 MD-80s departed on more than 150,000 flights in the last five months, and the landing gear retracted perfectly on 99.9999 percent of those flights."

Those remarks are little consolation to Mayer, who says the landing gear problem almost became a disaster.

"There was the potential for a catastrophic incident. No doubt about it," he says.

American does not dispute that it has had issues on MD-80s, but the airline said pilots are in contract talks and "certain misinformation" has been shared with the media.

The pilots' union says any fix could be costly to the airline and that leaking information to the press gives the union no advantage in its contract negotiations.

The FAA says it's aware of cases in which landing gear on American MD-80s has failed to retract properly, but the agency in a statement says it had "determined that there was no safety concern."

Critics say these incidents point to a bigger problem with oversight of maintenance issues at the FAA.

CNN reported last week that the FAA was only now trying to fix a problem dating to 2004 -- shattered cockpit windshields on Boeing aircraft. Four major carriers recently have grounded planes because there were gaps found in the FAA-required inspections for other problems. In addition, Southwest Airlines was fined $10.2 million and an FAA supervisor was demoted, for allowing the airline to delay aircraft inspections.

On Tuesday, American grounded nearly 500 flights to perform detailed inspections and on Wednesday canceled another 1,000 MD-80 flights, leaving passengers scrambling to find ways to get to their destinations.

Airline spokesman Roger Frizzell says the inspections are technical compliance issues and are not related to flight safety.

Capt. Todd Wissing, a safety committee member with the Allied Pilots Association, says he's concerned the FAA isn't doing enough to police the airline industry.

Wissing said American, his company, is trying to save money anyway it can, including on maintenance. He says he fears airlines will only do what the FAA requires -- but says he's concerned it may not be enough.


"I think that if there's an attitude change to where we're just going to do what the FAA minimum is, I think a lot of airlines will probably start to adopt that," Wissing says. "We want to do more than that, and we feel that we might be moving in the direction that requires an FAA mandate to do something and we don't want to see that."

In a statement to CNN, Boeing, which makes the MD-80 jetliner, says it is committed to safety but offered no comment on MD-80 nose landing gear problems. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Todd Schwarzschild contributed to this report.

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