Continental pilot says he tried to keep jet on runway

By Joan Lowy, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — The pilot of an airliner destroyed after veering off a Denver runway last month told federal safety investigators he struggled to keep the aircraft on course during the attempted to takeoff.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday the pilot of the Boeing 737-500 said that when the airplane suddenly diverged to the left during a takeoff roll, he tried to correct the course with the rudder but couldn't.

The pilot also said he tried using the jet's tiller to manipulate the steering of the nose gear, but that didn't keep the aircraft on the runway either, the NTSB said in a summary of information gathered so far by accident investigators.

Houston-bound Continental Airlines flight 1404 was carrying 110 passengers; 38 were injured, including the pilot.

The summary doesn't say whether any mechanical problems were found with the nose gear, which investigators dug out of the ground last week.

Passengers interviewed after the accident reported a loud bumping and rattling noise, and plane's voice recorder also contains loud noises 41 seconds after the airliner began a takeoff roll down Denver International Airport's runway 34. But the NTSB summary suggests those noises are consistent with the noises that would be heard as the aircraft left the smooth runway surface for uneven ground. The plane rumbled over 2,300 feet of snowy fields and roadway before halting in a ravine and catching fire.

An important question not addressed in the NTSB's summary is whether the pilot's account of his attempts to keep the airliner on the runway are consistent with information in the flight's data recorder, said John Cox, a former pilot and president of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation consulting firm in Washington.

"Did the airplane respond as commanded and what were the actual commands?" Cox said. "I believe what the pilot is saying is true to the best of his recollection, but there is sometimes a discrepancy in the flight data records."

Gusts of up to 37 mph were reported at the airport on the day of the accident. Cox and other aviation safety experts said strong crosswinds were likely a factor in the accident, but weren't strong enough to explain the accident entirely. They said some additional factor — either mechanical failure or human error — also could have played a role.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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