The Supply Chain Matters blog provides an update to the Atlas Air Cargo plane crash that occurred in late February. Accident investigators are leaning toward pilot error as a potential factor of this accident.

As highlighted in our prior blog, a converted Boeing 767 cargo jet operated by Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings under lease to Amazon Air, suddenly crashed on approach to Houston’s George Busch International Airport in late February. The aircraft originated in Miami

Tragically, the two pilots and another Horizon Air pilot hitching a ride in the cockpit jump seat perished in the accident. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) indicated that airport radar and radio communications lost contact with the aircraft about 30 miles southeast of the airport. Reportedly, the last radar signal from the aircraft was from 5,800 feet and then the aircraft dropped suddenly.

This weekend, The Wall Street Journal, citing informed sources, reported that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident investigation team now suspects that pilot errors, rather than aircraft malfunctions may have led to the accident. The safety board has not issued any final report as to its investigation, but the reported evidence accumulated thus far by investigators is leading toward potential pilot missteps.

The WSJ indicates that investigators determined that the “engines increased to maximum thrust” as the aircraft was flying at roughly 6000 feet. The NTSB update then notes a brief nose-up action with the aircraft then entering a steep descent in a “generally wings level attitude until impact with the swamp.” That sudden surge in aircraft thrust forced the aircraft to pitch upward, startling the crew, which then try to respond by sharply pushing down the nose of the aircraft.

As Supply Chain Matters indicated in our original update, a likely tone related to the accident investigation could have been the stress that is placed on air cargo pilots that have to fly regardless of weather and regardless of fatigue. That has been a finding in some prior UPS cargo aircraft tragedies. With these pilot error suspicions now being pursued in the Atlas Air tragedy, we can likely anticipate broader transport industry debate related to air crew scheduling, fatigue and continuous training needs.

In a Supply Chain Matters October 2013 commentary, we highlighted for our readers an Opinion column that was published in the Wall Street Journal titled “A Tired Pilot Is a Tired Pilot, Regardless of the Plane”. It was jointly penned by Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, who famously piloted a US Airways A350 aircraft that successfully landed in New York’s Hudson River saving the lives of all passengers, and Jim Hall, a former chairperson of the NTSB. In the Editorial, the authors brought to light the dangers imposed by fatigued pilots, both for commercial and air cargo flying. At the time, the U.S. FAA had directed revised fatigue standards for commercial pilots but excluded air cargo pilots. The premise of the authors was that by excluding cargo pilots, who often fly continuous long inter-continental routes, the mission for making safety the first priority for aviation is compromised.  Their most powerful argument: “Whether there are packages or people behind the cockpit door, pilot fatigue exists just the same. And it threatens the lives of pilots and bystanders on the ground alike.

Those words expressed six years ago have continued meaning with each and every air cargo tragedy, and perhaps the Atlas Air tragedy in February. It provides yet another reminder of the weighting of air safety and that of operational and asset costs, an unfortunate recurring theme across global logistics and transportation. We again trust that when the final report of this latest accident is released, that safety investigators will provide important recommendations.

 

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