JAMAICA, Queens (WABC) -- Federal investigators said Friday they issued subpoenas to force the pilots of an American Airlines jet to sit for recorded interviews about a close call with a Delta plane on a runway at New York's Kennedy Airport last month.
When American Airlines Flight 106 lumbered down the runway and took off into the night sky, bound for London on Jan. 13, the giant Boeing 777 took evidence with it, the cockpit voice recording.
The recording could have shown why an hour earlier, the flight came perilously close to disaster.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the pilots at the controls that night, are refusing to cooperate.
"NTSB has determined that this investigation requires that the flight crew interviews be audio recorded and transcribed by a court reporter to ensure the highest degree of accuracy, completeness, and efficiency," the agency said in a preliminary report. "As a result of the flight crew's repeated unwillingness to proceed with a recorded interview, subpoenas for their testimony have been issued."
According to the agency's preliminary report, investigators attempted to interview the American Airlines crew three different times, but the pilots refused to be interviewed on the basis that their statements would be audio recorded.
"I think what they've done is make themselves look culpable when there probably was no need to do so," ABC News aviation consultant John Nance said.
The three pilots have seven days to respond to the subpoenas, which direct them to appear for interviews at NTSB headquarters in Washington. American said they are not currently flying for the airline.
NTSB investigators won't get to hear any conversation that took place among the pilots in the cockpit during the incident - in some cases, a very valuable investigative tool. The recording was taped over when the crew took off for London shortly after the close call.
The NTSB said the American Airlines Boeing 777 crossed an active runway on Jan. 13 without approval from air traffic controllers, and that led to a close call with a Delta Air Lines Boeing 737 that was taking off on the same runway.
Disaster was averted when an air traffic controller, using an expletive, urgently told pilots of the Delta jet to stop their takeoff. Audio recordings show that the controller immediately communicated the severity of the situation to the American Airlines crew.
"Humans are incapable of being perfect 100% of the time and that's why we build in buffers," Nance said. "The buffer in this case was the air traffic controller who said abort your takeoff."
The Delta pilots, clearly shaken, returned to the gate, but no one pulled the cockpit voice recorder from the American jet before it continued on to London. During that long flight, the NTSB says the plane's cockpit voice recorder was "overwritten."
So had the pilots been distracted? Were they simply confused? Without the recording, they're the only ones who can say, and for now, they aren't saying anything.
The pilots' union says the reason it advised its members not to cooperate with the NTSB was because it believes recorded the interviews would make them too adversarial.
"NTSB investigations are intended to be fact-finding proceedings with no adverse parties. We do not believe that this should be an adversarial issue," the Allied Pilots Association said in a statement.
The union said that changing the interviews from notes to recordings "discourages otherwise cooperative witnesses from participating in the fact-finding process" and runs against the purpose of promoting safety.
The NTSB said that it has a long practice of recording some interviews, and that doing so is especially important in this case because the cockpit voice recording was overwritten.
American, which is based in Fort Worth, Texas, said it was cooperating with the NTSB.
The American crew took off shortly after the nighttime incident and completed its scheduled flight to London. The Delta pilots returned their plane to the gate. Delta put up passengers overnight, and the plane left the next morning for the Dominican Republic.
The cockpit voice recordings in both planes were lost as a result. The devices typically capture a two-hour loop before being recorded over.
The NTSB said an air traffic controller at JFK was alerted to the danger of the American jet crossing the wrong runway by a surveillance system that lets controllers track the movement of planes and vehicles on the ground.
The board said the American Airlines Boeing 777 and the Delta Boeing 737 were separated by about 1,400 feet at the closest point - a bit farther apart than previously reported.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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