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Special Report: American Airlines Flight 191 

By: Chris Kilroy

An amateur photographer shot this photo of American 191's final seconds, as the aircraft rolled past a 90 bank angle. Hydraulic fluid and jet fuel can be seen leaking from the no.1 engine pylon.
May 25, 1979 remains the darkest day in American aviation. On that Friday before the Memorial Day Weekend, 270 passengers and crew aboard American Airlines Flight 191 lost their lives when their airplane literally fell out of the sky. To this day, the accident is the most deadly commercial airline crash in United States history.  Here is the story of what happened on that blusterry Spring day in 1979.

In command of flight 191 was Capt. Walter Lux, a 22,000 hour pilot who had flown the DC-10 nearly since its introduction eight years earlier. Assisting him on the flight deck were First Officer James Dillard and Flight Engineer Alfred Udovich, who had 25,000 flying hours between them. At 2:50 pm, N110AA was cleared to taxi to runway 32R at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, and at 3:02 pm the flight was cleared for takeoff. The wind was Northeast at 22 knots.

In the cockpit and cabin, the takeoff roll seemed totally normal. The view from the cockpit was even being broadcast on the airliner's closed circuit television system for the passengers' enjoyment. But six thousand feet into the takeoff roll, air traffic controllers in O'Hare's control tower saw small parts of the aircraft's no.1 engine pylon fall away, and as the aircraft started its rotation, the entire number one engine separated from the wing.

Behaving exactly as it was designed to, the severed engine flew up and over the left wing, falling to the runway below. Unfortunately, in the process, it ripped out all of the hydraulic lines to the leading edge slats. As a result, pressure slowly started to leak out and the leading edge slats slowly started to retract. The plane continued to climb normally, however.

American 191 explodes as it impacts a field adjacent to a trailer park near O'Hare International Airport.
The tower controller called "American 191 heavy, you wanna come back and to what runway?" There was no response... the crew was too concerned with keeping their wounded beast flying. The Captain, following American's engine-out procedures to the nth degree, pitched the nose up and slowed the aircraft down to V2+6, or 159 knots. Decelerating through 165 knots, something odd began to happen.

The Captain was putting in full right rudder and aileron, yet the aircraft was still rolling left. At an altitude of 400 feet and with an airspeed of 155 knots, the airplane rolled past wings vertical and fell to earth with a bank of 112 and a nose down attitude of 21.

The accident investigation revealed that, when the engine separated, it disabled the Captain's control panel, which contained both of the slat disagreement systems. The severed hydraulic lines allowed the slats on the left wing to gradually retract, and the stall speed on the left wing rose considerably. When the aircraft slowed through 164 knots, the left wing aerodynamically stalled because of its clean configuration, while the right wing continued to produce lift with its slats still in takeoff position. With one wing stalling and one wing producing full lift, the airplane eventually rolled past a 90 bank, and fell to the ground. The crash killed two people on the ground when it hit a field directly adjacent to a trailer park.  All 270 passengers and crew aboard were also fatally injured.

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