NEWSCLIP-2013-08-17: UPS pilots alerted plane was descending too fast before crash

Automated alert system warned pilots descent was too fast

Written by
Mark Vanderhoff
The Courier-Journal (Louisville)

An automated alert system told two UPS pilots just 16 seconds before their Airbus A300 crashed short of a Birmingham, Ala., runway Wednesday morning that the plane was approaching the ground too quickly, a National Transportation Safety Board official said Friday.

A review of the cockpit recorder shows the descent rate alert went off just before one crew member noted the runway was in sight, said Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member.

Sumwalt said it was too early to determine the cause of the crash, which killed both pilots.

“We’re not doing any analysis while we’re here,” he said at a briefing in Birmingham. “We’re just in a data collection phase.”

Investigators will be working through the weekend with the cockpit recorder, one of two “black boxes” retrieved Thursday from the wreckage, to create a transcript of the sounds and voices in the cockpit in the moments preceding the crash, Sumwalt said. They will also review flight data, he said.

“I know that I personally breathed a huge sigh of relief once I knew we had good data from both of those boxes,” he said.

Investigators also spoke Friday with one of two air traffic controllers on duty during the crash. One was on break, which is allowed, and will be interviewed today, Sumwalt said. The other, who witnessed the crash, was “a very experienced controller,” he said.

The controller told investigators that in the moments before impact he saw “a bright spark flash, which he equated to what it would look like if a power line broke,” Sumwalt said. The controller saw the plane’s landing lights, but then could no longer see them. Then he saw “a bright orange flash” followed by a “red glow,” Sumwalt said.

Witnesses have told investigators they believed the plane was on fire and made sputtering sounds before it clipped trees and crashed into the bottom of a hill near the runway and skidded 200 yards. Investigators also said Thursday they found dirt and tree debris in the engines, although they didn’t believe there was an engine fire before impact.

Also Friday, a team of NTSB aircraft maintenance experts was in Louisville, working on a detailed review of the maintenance records for the UPS cargo plane.

UPS officials are working with the team, said Mike Mangeot, a UPS spokesman.

The crash killed Capt. Cerea Beal, 58, of Matthews, N.C., and First Officer Shanda Carney Fanning, 37, of Lynchburg, Tenn., according to UPS.

Beal, who was piloting the aircraft, had been flying for UPS since October 1990 and had 8,600 hours of flying experience, including 3,200 in an Airbus A300, Sumwalt said. Fanning was hired by UPS in November 2006 and had 6,500 hours of flying experience, with 400 of those in an Airbus A300, he said.

Both pilots had their proper certifications and were specifically rated to fly the Airbus A300, he said.

Their journey in plane N155UP began at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, when they left Rockford, Ill., Sumwalt said. They stopped in Peoria and Louisville before heading to Birmingham, he said.

Two minutes before the end of the cockpit recording, the plane was cleared to land at Birmingham-Shuttleworth International Airport, according to highlights read by Sumwalt.

The descent rate warning, known as a “ground proximity warning system,” went off 16 seconds before the end of the recording, audibly signaling “Sink rate, sink rate,” Sumwalt said.

With 13 seconds to go, one crew member tells another crew member the runway is in sight. The final nine seconds of the recording feature “sounds consistent with impact,” Sumwalt said.

Investigators were scheduled Friday to test the airport’s Minimum Safe Altitude Warning system and runway light system, but couldn’t because of low clouds, he said.

They will continue diagramming the wreckage site through the weekend, he said.

“We are right where we should be” in the investigation, he said.

Copied 8-17-13 from Slight format changes and the addition of green-box links and/or green side-notes, by aiREFORM.