With initial indications that engines and flight controls of a A300-600F freighter that crashed in Birmingham, Ala., before sunrise on Aug. 14 were operating properly, investigators are taking a close look at the actions of the pilots and procedures used for the landing.
Both UPS pilots were killed when the Airbus slammed into a hill short of Runway 18 at the airport after clipping trees and power lines in an adjacent neighborhood.
board member Robert Sumwalt, during his final on-scene press conference on Aug. 17, said investigators had begun interviewing UPS employees and contractors who had interacted with the crew that morning and the evening before as part of the 72-hr. work history it puts together for crews as part of its analyses.
The captain and first officer began their duty day for UPS Flight 1354 in Rockford, Ill at 9:30 p.m. the night before the crash. The crew flew to Peoria, Ill., and then on to UPS’s hub in Louisville, Ky., for a layover before the 5 a.m. departure of the 1-hr. flight to Birmingham. “They obtained keys for the sleep rooms in Louisville, and we want to determine if they used those rooms,” said Sumwalt, adding that UPS provides sleeping facilities for the company’s pilots at the hub.
Based on the initial information from air traffic control tapes, the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, the pilots were cleared for the localizer non-precision instrument approach to Runway 18 that morning and kept the autopilot and autothrottle engaged for the approach. The captain was flying the approach into Birmingham.
For a localizer approach, the aircraft receives precision lateral guidance to the runway, but pilots use their altimeter to maintain a safe altitude—in this case at 556 ft. above the terrain—until they visually sight the runway lights or other ground-based guidance, including precision approach path indicator (PAPI) lights, through the cockpit windscreen. According to Sumwalt, one of the pilots called “runway in sight” 13 sec. before the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) stopped recording. The, after the crash, verified that the PAPI was working correctly.
Four seconds after the “runway in sight call” there were sounds on the CVR “consistent with an impact,” said Sumwalt. He did not specify if those sounds were the aircraft striking tree tops in a neighborhood along the final approach, or the impact of the A300 on a hillside approximately 0.5 mi. before the runway end.
He did say investigators looking at the A300’s Pratt & Whitney PW4158 engines determined that the turbofans had damage from “dirt and trees” but that there had not been uncontained failures or engine fires before the crash.
In addition, Sumwalt said Airbus’s autothrottle system appeared to be correctly tracking the commanded airspeed of 140 kt., and the flight controls were working properly.
The short time-span between pilots calling “runway in sight” and the impact could indicate that the pilots were using a modified landing procedure. “In the coming weeks, we anticipate a flight-test in a UPS A300 to see how this approach would be flown in that type of aircraft, and to learn more about UPS’s approach procedures,” said Sumwalt.