WASHINGTON — The pilots of a UPS cargo jet that crashed last August complained about the company's tiring work schedules at the start of the fatal flight, and then made errors shortly before the plane flew into a hillside and burst into flames, according to information presented at a hearing Thursday.
The pilots were killed in the pre-dawn crash as they tried to land at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Ala., where the main runway was closed for maintenance. Capt. Cerea Beal Jr. was attempting to land on a second, much shorter runway that wasn't equipped with a full instrument landing system to help keep planes from coming in too high or too low.
UPS pilots typically land at airports without the aid of a full instrument landing system only about once or twice a year, according to information presented to the National Transportation Safety Board. The pilots also failed to complete a last step in programming the plane's computer system for the landing. Without that step, the computer couldn't provide critical navigation help, witnesses said.
The pilots realized the computer couldn't help them but didn't abort the landing and try again, which would have been the preferred and expected action, testimony indicated. Beal also set the descent rate for that runway too high — 1,500 feet of altitude per minute rather than the recommended 1,000 feet. That put the plane below the minimum safe altitude for its flight path. Moments later, the plane struck the tops of trees and an alert sounded that it was about to hit the ground.
"Oh, did I hit something?" Beal said, according to a transcript of the cockpit voice recorder. Then 3 seconds later, "oh, oh God." The recorder then cut off as the plane crashed.
Beal had complained to First Officer Shanda Fanning shortly after the flight left Louisville, Ky., that cargo pilots aren't given as much time to rest between work shifts as federal regulations require for pilots at passenger airlines, the transcript showed.
Fanning agreed. She said she had "good sleep" the previous night but woke up tired anyway.
Regulations governing pilot hours "should be across the board," Beal said, "to be honest, in my opinion, whether you are flying passengers or cargo or, you know, box of chocolates at night."
Beal had recently expressed concern about the schedules at the cargo carrier, according to a summary of investigators' interviews with witnesses.
"About 7 weeks before the accident, he told a colleague that the schedules were becoming more demanding because they were flying up to three legs per night," according to summary of interviews compiled by investigators. Beal said, "I can't do this until I retire because it's killing me," and had a similar conversation with another colleague the night before the accident, the summary said.
In text messages at 11:18 a.m. the day before the crash, Fanning described her exhaustion in text messages retrieved by investigators.
"I fell asleep on every damn leg last nite," she wrote. "Bed by 645 ish, now #8 up, slept like 4 # hrs.... Van isnt till 8 tonite so hoping i will nap again this afternoon," she texted, referring to a van that was schedule to pick up the flight crew at their hotel and take them to the airport.
The pilots reported to work about at the airport in Rockford, Ill., just before 9 p.m. CDT on Aug. 13. From there, they flew to Peoria and then to Louisville, Ky. They were finishing their third and last scheduled leg when the plane slammed into the hillside just before 5 a.m. on Aug. 14.
UPS officials cautioned against concluding the pilots were fatigued, and therefore prone to error.
"Crew rest is a complex concept. And for some, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that a pilot who flies at night must be tired," the company said in a statement. "It's also easy to presume that if they are tired, it's induced by their assigned work schedule. Neither is necessarily accurate."
UPS officials noted that documents released by the safety board indicate Beal's and Fanning's schedules up until the crash would have met federal requirements for passenger airline pilots. However, the pilots were scheduled for another night of flying after Birmingham, which would have violated limits on consecutive night shifts for passenger airline pilots, union officials said.
The safety board has long expressed concern about operator fatigue, saying the problem shows up repeatedly in accidents across all modes of transportation — planes, trains, cars, trucks and ships. Fatigue can erode judgment, slow response times and lead to errors much as alcohol can.
Two years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration issued new rules aimed at ensuring airline pilots have sufficient rest. FAA officials had proposed including cargo airlines in draft regulations, but exempted them when final regulations were released, citing cost. Cargo carriers, who do much of their flying at night, strongly opposed the regulations. FAA officials estimated the regulations would cost $550 million over 12 years if applied to cargo airlines; the Independent Pilots Association, which represents UPS pilots, estimated the cost at $320 million.
Night shift workers frequently suffer fatigue, especially between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. when the human body's circadian rhythms — physical and behavioral changes that respond to light and darkness — are telling the brain to sleep, according to sleep experts.