The deadly crash of a United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) plane that struck a hillside short of an Alabama runway yesterday is the latest for an air-cargo industry that’s experienced many more fatal wrecks than U.S. passenger carriers.
The accident involving Atlanta-based UPS, the world’s largest package-delivery company, was the second with fatalities this year and fourth since 2009 for a U.S.-registered cargo hauler, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
“We have not seen that kind of number in passenger airplanes,” John Cox, president of Washington-based Safety Operating Systems and a former airline pilot, said in an interview.
The rate of fatal cargo accidents around the world was eight times higher than on passenger planes from 2002 to 2011, according to a study by the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority published in June.
The UPS plane, an Airbus SAS A300-600F, broke apart and burst into flames yesterday while approaching the airport in Birmingham, Robert Sumwalt, a member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said at a briefing.
The two pilots were killed. UPS declined to name them in a joint statement with the Independent Pilots Association union.
Yesterday’s accident followed the crash of a Boeing Co. (BA) 747-400 operated by National Air Cargo Group Inc. shortly after takeoff from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on April 29. All seven crew members aboard were killed, according to the NTSB.
Two UPS pilots died Sept. 3, 2010, in Dubai after a fire broke out in their 747-400 carrying a load of lithium batteries, according to the United Arab Emirates General Civil Aviation Authority.
A crash in Narita, Japan, near Tokyo on March 23, 2009, killed two pilots on a FedEx Corp. MD-11 after a hard landing and fire, according to the AviationSafetyNetwork, a website that tracks aviation accidents.
No U.S.-based passenger carriers have had a fatal accident since Feb. 12, 2009, when 49 people died in a crash near Buffalo, New York, of a regional turboprop plane operated by Pinnacle Airlines Corp.’s former Colgan unit, according to the NTSB. A man on the ground also died in the accident.
Three passengers died aboard an Asiana Airlines Inc. plane that crashed short of the San Francisco International Airport runway on July 6.
In yesterday’s crash, UPS Flight 1354 was en route to Birmingham from Louisville, Kentucky, the company’s air hub. It flew over a subdivision north of the runway moments before the accident, Sumwalt said.
Photos from the scene showed the freighter scorched and the ground strewn with packages from its cargo bay.
“I’m talking about 150 feet and he would have hit my house and my family would have been dead,” Freddy Carter, whose home is near the crash site, said in an interview.
Investigators will examine whether the pilots, who were landing shortly before dawn, were suffering from fatigue, Cox said.
Cargo airlines were exempted from rules mandated by Congress that restrict how many hours passenger-airline pilots can fly, particularly during overnight hours. The rules go into effect in 2014.
The IPA and the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents FedEx Corp. (FDX) pilots, have pushed Congress to enact legislation to require the same standards for cargo pilots.
“Current science leaves no doubt that airline pilots don’t experience fatigue differently based on whether they fly passengers or cargo in their aircraft,” Lee Moak, ALPA’s president, said in a Jan. 8 press release.
In addition to operating more flights at night, when fatigue is most prevalent, cargo airlines have other risk factors, such as flying into smaller airports without as many safety protections as larger ones and carrying more dangerous freight, Cox said.
UPS Flight 1354 yesterday was landing to the south on the Birmingham’s airport Runway 18, which lacks an instrument-landing system to provide planes with a glide slope guiding them to the runway, according to pilot-information website AirNav.com.
Pilots on the Asiana plane that crashed short of the runway also didn’t have a glide-slope indicator when their 777 flew too low and slammed into a seawall.
In yesterday’s crash, smoldering fires hindered investigators’ attempts to reach the plane’s flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders, Sumwalt said. Investigators are optimistic they can recover the recorders soon, he said.
The cockpit came to rest 200 yards (183 meters) from the spot where the plane initially hit the ground, Sumwalt said. The bulk of the rest of the plane, including the wings and the tail section, skidded another 75 to 80 yards closer to the runway, he said.
“It appears that the aircraft went through some trees and then initially impacted towards the bottom of the hill where there is evidence of fire,” he said. “Then it went up the hill where it came to the top of the hill and came to its final resting point.”
Hills rising from the end of Birmingham’s Runway 18 may have contributed to the crash, said Kevin Hiatt, chief executive officer of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation and a former Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL) pilot who said he has landed on that strip “dozens of times.”
The hillside would have been veiled by darkness when the plane landed, creating what pilots call a “black hole” that may have obscured the dangers of getting too low, Hiatt said.
“The hillside there isn’t a radical hillside, but it does rise up,” Hiatt said. “It increases the risk.”
The UPS pilots didn’t make a distress call to the airport control tower, Sumwalt said. The lack of a call suggests the pilots weren’t aware of an onboard fire or other issue that could have led to the accident.
Airbus said it was assessing the situation, and Pratt & Whitney, the United Technologies Corp. unit that made the engines on the jet, said it would work with accident investigators.
UPS fell 0.3 percent to $87.45 in New York yesterday as broad U.S. stock indexes retreated. The shares rose 19 percent this year.
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