UPS Jet Crash in Alabama Is Latest Fatal Cargo Accident

The deadly crash of a United Parcel Service Inc. 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.

“Cargo has clearly been treated as a stepchild” by regulators, Jim Hall, a former safety-board chairman who is a consultant for the Independent Pilots Association, the union representing UPS pilots, said in an interview.

There’s no evidence the UPS plane’s two jet engines failed or that the Airbus SAS A300-600F caught fire before it hit the ground, Robert Sumwalt, a member of the safety board, said today at a briefing in Alabama.

The plane’s flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders, which were recovered at 11 a.m. local time today, are expected to arrive at the agency’s Washington laboratory tonight, Sumwalt said. Investigators are optimistic they can retrieve data from the fire-damaged recorders, he said.

The UPS plane struck trees and a hillside, broke apart and burst into flames while approaching the airport before dawn yesterday, Sumwalt said. The two pilots were killed. UPS declined to name them in a joint statement with the pilots association.

Black Boxes

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 accident near Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport followed the crash of a Boeing Co. 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.

Closed Runway

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.

The plane was landing on Runway 18, which at 7,100 feet was shorter than the 12,000-foot alternate landing strip. The longer runway was closed for maintenance on its lights at the time of the accident, Sumwalt said.

Runway 18 also lacks an instrument-landing system to provide planes with a glide slope guiding them to the runway and ensuring that they descend clear of higher terrain, according to pilot-information website

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.

Risk Factors

Investigators will examine whether the pilots, who were landing shortly before dawn, were suffering from fatigue, John Cox, president of Washington-based Safety Operating Systems and a former airline pilot, said in an interview.

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 pilots, have pushed Congress to enact legislation to require the same standards for the cargo industry.

Because cargo planes don’t carry passengers, accidents kill fewer people and it has been harder to justify expensive safety regulations, Hall said.

“My focus is being sure that we don’t let economic decisions drive safety,” he said.

Night Flights

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.

The UPS plane’s engines showed signs of ingesting debris from trees and the ground, Sumwalt said.

The UPS plane’s 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.

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. 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.”