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Delta 191: When Weather Brought Down a Jumbo Jet

The Lockheed L-1011 Was Unable to Stay Aloft Due to Wind Shear

Delta L-1011. By Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

On 2 August 1985, a Delta Air Lines Lockheed L-1011-385-1 Tristar registered N726DA and operating as Delta Flight 191, was approaching Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport runway 17L. The flight had originated at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (KFLL) near Miami in Florida and was ultimately bound for Los Angeles International Airport (KLAX) in California. Delivered to Delta Air Lines on 28 February 1979 and powered by Rolls Royce RB211-22B high bypass turbofan engines, Delta 191 had left KFLL at 1410 local time that fateful day.

Delta L1011. By Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland (12bl) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The flight crew for this flight consisted of 57 year-old pilot Captain Edward N. Connors, 42 year-old co-pilot First Officer Rudolph P. Price, and 43 year-old Flight Engineer Nick Nassick. Between them the flight crew had more than 40,000 hours of flight time, 8,700 of them in L-1011 type aircraft. Connors in particular was described as a meticulous pilot who strictly adhered to company policies and welcomed suggestions from fellow crew members. But it was the flight crew who ultimately decided the fate of Delta 191.

Delta L-1011. By Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The flight that day was far from full. The passenger cabin had a capacity of 246 passengers. Thankfully, in addition to eight flight attendants on the aircraft, there were a total of 152 passengers in the cabin when Delta 191 left Florida bound for Texas. En route weather was a concern right away; the flight was filed under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and the crew of Delta 191 was informed prior to departure that scattered rain showers and thunderstorms were forecast for the Dallas vicinity- like most August days. As the flight progressed westward from Fort Lauderdale, the weather in the Dallas area deteriorated- like many August days.

Delta L-1011. By Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Passing New Orleans, the crew decided to deviate north from their intended route to avoid storms. After holding over Texarkana, DAL 191 was cleared into the Dallas area. DAL 191 was then forced to deviate around isolated thunderstorms along the approach path to KDFW. Finally cleared for an Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach at 1802, the L-1011 flew through rain without incident north of KDFW before the control tower remarked that there were variable winds north of the airport due to a rain shower. DAL 191 flew through that rain shower too.

Image via AP

While preparing for landing, DAL 191 had just completed their landing checklist and extended landing gear when the aircraft entered another storm cell. The air was descending inside the storm cell and it simply couldn’t support the jet as it flew through. With their aircraft robbed of lift the crew reacted predictably, inputting controls for climbing the aircraft and throttling up the engines, but it wasn’t enough. At 1805 the aircraft touched down on its landing gear in a plowed field more than a mile from the airport and more than a hundred yards east of 17L centerline. Unable to get airborne again due to the descending air, the jet rolled across the plowed field trying to get back in the air as it approached Texas Highway 114- an airport perimeter road.

Image via AP

When the aircraft got to Highway 114 it first struck a streetlight. Engine number one struck a vehicle on the highway, decapitating the driver. Then the jet continued southward, hitting two more streetlights. It was at that point that N726DA began breaking up. Losing its port side horizontal stabilizer, engine cowling parts, elevator and flap parts, and nose gear, the jet grazed a large water tank and struck a second, which rotated the fuselage counterclockwise. There was fuel fire observed coming from the port side wing root which spread to the cabin interior. The impact with the second water tank and the fuel fire destroyed the entire forward portion of N726DA all the way back to where the tail section separated from the rest of the aircraft.

Image via AP

Separated from the rest of the aircraft when it contacted the first water tank, the tail section contained the only two survivors who had no injuries and all ten who had minor injuries. The starboard side of the tail section was the best place to be. Everyone seated forward of row 20 was killed. Few survivors emerged from the section between row 20 and row 33 where the tail section separated. Had the flight been full the result would certainly have been far worse. As it happened, 136 of the 163 souls on board DAL 191 died as a result of the crash that day in Dallas. Two injured passengers died months after the crash. Of the crew, only three flight attendants survived.

Image via Star-Telegram/AP

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the crash occurred due to pilot error, in that the pilot flew the aircraft into a thunderstorm. Other factors, most importantly the weather itself, obviously contributed. The crash brought the terms wind shear and microburst into mainstream vernacular. Commercial airliners were soon required to be equipped with Doppler wind shear detection and alert systems. The Delta 191 tragedy wasn’t the last aviation accident caused by wind shear and/or microburst, but it certainly increased focus on the phenomenon. Delta retired the last of their Lockheed L-1011 Tristars in 2001.

Image via AP

This video with cockpit and ATC transmissions was uploaded to YouTube by Alec Joshua Ibay.

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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