YPSILANTI, Mich. – The pilot of the University of Michigan basketball team plane that skidded off the runway at Willow Run Airport last year broke protocol during the aborted flight, but might have saved lives in doing so, a report from the National Transportation Safety Board said.
There were 110 passengers and six crew members on board the Boeing MD-83 airplane when it took off for Washington Dulles International Airport on March 8, 2017. The Wolverines were heading to Washington, D.C., for the Big Ten Tournament, but their greatest obstacle wasn't on the court.
A massive wind storm swept across Southeast Michigan in early March, knocking out power to 800,000 DTE Energy customers and leaving extensive damage across the area. At one point on March 8, winds at Detroit Metro Airport registered at 68 mph.
When the plane the team was on tried to take off from Willow Run, it never got off the ground. After reaching speeds near 200 mph, the plane skidded off the runway and sustained extensive damage before everyone was evacuated onto the runway.
According to the NTSB report, an elevator jammed in the plane, impacting the pilots' ability to control the plane's upward and downward movements. Pilot Mark Radloff noticed something was wrong while the plane was traveling at 187 mph, the report said.
Radloff said the control wheel felt heavy, "like there was a stack of bricks on the nose." He told investigators that he knew the plane wouldn't ascend, so he chose to abort beyond the speed in which a plane is committed to take off.
Transcript of pilots during aborted takeoff
According to a transcript of the cockpit voice recorder, the plane was set to take off at 2:52 p.m. Chief pilot Andreas Gruseus was Radloff's copilot and announced the plane was at V-one and then V-two, which means the plane is going too fast to abort takeoff without likely damage and injuries.
After Gruseus said the plane was at V-two, Radloff said, "Hey, what's going on? Abort."
"No, not above (expletive)," Gruseus said. "(Expletive). Don't abort above V-one like that. (Expletive)."
"It wasn't flying," Radloff said.
"Speed, break, speed, break," someone said from the cockpit area microphone.
"Heads down. Stay down. Heads down. Stay down. Heads down. Stay down," a flight attendant told passengers.
"Landing gear. Landing gear," someone said from the cockpit-area microphone.
"Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate," the flight attendant said.
"It wasn't flying," Radloff said. "It wasn't. I had it all the way back here. It wasn't flying. ... It was not rotating. I had it all the way back here. (Expletive)."
According to the NTSB report, Radloff "brought the throttles to idle, initiated reverse thrust, applied braking and then deployed the spoiler handle."
Once a plane is above V-one, the report said results are usually more catastrophic if the plane is stopped than if the plane would have taken off. But Radloff said he knew the plane wasn't going to rise, so he aborted in V-two.
An assessment of the plane found that one of the two elevators had likely been jammed by high winds and wasn't functioning. Since wind gusts never got over 75 mph, the elevators didn't officially need to be inspected before takeoff, though 68 mph winds might have been strong enough to do damage, according to the report.
Result of aborted takeoff
When Radloff brought the throttles to idle, the plane smashed through a fence and came to rest on an airport roadside ditch. The plane was evacuated, and players, coaches and managers ran to a safe distance.
Michigan's star center Moritz Wagner wrote about the aftermath a few weeks later in a Players' Tribune article.
"We can tell from the sound of the pilot’s voice, and from how scared the flight crew seems, that we’re not out of the woods yet," Wagner wrote. "It’s like: They don’t just want us off that plane.
"And we just keep hearing those words, shouted, over and over. 'Evacuation! Evacuation!' It’s all happening so fast, and with this urgency that I don’t even know how to describe. I’m thinking, like, Holy s---. ... Are they worried this thing is about to explode?"
Wagner said the players evacuated onto the wing while the plane was still running, and sprinted away as fast as they could.
The only injury reported in the crash was a cut on point guard Derrick Walton Jr.'s leg, which required stitches. Walton played the following day against Illinois without limitations.
Who is Mark Radloff?
Radloff was a 54-year-old native of Mequon, Wisconsin, at the time of the incident.
According to the report, he was "a DC-9 captain receiving differences training on the MD-83." The MD-83 is a version of the DC-9 that was created for passenger flights.
Radloff flew the SF-340 for Mesaba Airlines in Detroit from December 1993 to August 1998.
Radloff was hired by Ameristar Air Cargo on Jan. 25, 2016, and had flown a DC-9 as a first officer and captain, the report said. He had logged 15,750 flight hours in his career, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. There were no previous incidents or violations found on his record.
Michigan goes on to with Big Ten Tournament title
After the scare, Michigan's basketball team debated skipping the conference tournament, but decided to leave at 6 a.m. the following morning for Detroit Metro Airport. The Detroit Pistons let Michigan use their plane, which took off at 7:30 a.m. and landed at 8:45 a.m. in D.C.
When Michigan took the court, players were wearing practice jerseys instead of their normal uniforms, which were still on the plane at Willow Run. They weren't allowed to remove anything from the plane because officials were investigating the cause of the incident.
As the No. 8 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan took down Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue and Wisconsin in consecutive days to win the conference championship. Though they had been playing better late in the season, the Wolverines were inspired in the nation's capital, knocking off the hottest team in the conference in Minnesota and the top two seeds in the tournament.
Michigan knocked off a dangerous team in Oklahoma State and upset No. 2 seed Louisville to make it to the second weekend of the Big Dance. Starting point guard Derrick Walton came within inches of sending Michigan to the Elite 8, but his last-second jumper against Oregon clanged off the front of the rim.
Though the NTSB report is hundreds of pages long, there is no official conclusion.
NTSB officials said a determination will likely be made in the next six to 12 months. It's unclear if that will involve actions involving Radloff, flight procedure or inspection guidelines.
Though Radloff broke procedure and overrode his higher-ranking copilot, the report makes it clear that he likely saved lives by aborting takeoff because pilots wouldn't have had control of the plane's upward and downward movements.
Michigan basketball's plane crash was a major scare and a national storyline, but the NTSB report makes it clear that the outcome could have been much worse.