Last seconds before UPS crash in Birmingham point to tricky airport approach

The UPS flight that crashed in Birmingham had to make a visual approach over hills to the airport’s shorter runway because the much longer, more familiar runway was closed for maintenance.

Jay Reeves/AP
Investigators scour a hillside looking for evidence in the fatal crash of a UPS cargo plane in Birmingham, Ala., on Friday, Aug. 16, 2013. The twin-engine Airbus A300 aircraft went down on Aug. 14 during a flight from Louisville, Ky., while attempting to land.

Although it will be months before official reports are made, new clues are emerging about the cause of the crash of a UPS cargo plane short of the runway at the airport in Birmingham, Ala., early Wednesday morning.

So far, it appears to be a combination of weather (low clouds and raining), time of day (before dawn), and a tricky visual approach over hills to the airport’s shorter runway because the much longer, more familiar runway – the one that provided glide slope as well as direction information to approaching pilots – was closed for maintenance.

Initial evidence and eye-witness reports indicate that the Airbus A300 clipped power lines and trees, possibly ingesting debris into the engines, before crashing seconds later.

Investigators have recovered the flight recorder and cockpit voice recorder from the A300 aircraft flown by two pilots, both of whom were killed in the mishap.

So far, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials reported Friday, there is no indication of any mechanical malfunction or systems problem that might have caused the crash. The pilots had not radioed any distress warning.

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt told reporters during a briefing Friday that a recorder captured the first of two audible warnings in the cockpit 16 seconds before the sound of an impact, either with trees or the ground.

The warnings indicated the twin-engine jet cargo plane was descending at a rate outside normal parameters given its altitude, Mr. Sumwalt said, meaning its sink rate was excessive.

At this early point in the investigation, officials haven't made any determination on the actual cause of the crash into an Alabama hillside.

"We haven't ruled anything in, haven't ruled anything out," he said.

Still, the main focus now is on the UPS aircraft’s approach to that shorter runway – Runway 18 – and the hill pilots must clear just before landing there.

"When I heard they were using Runway 18 it caught my attention because of that hill," said Ross Aimer, a retired United Airlines captain who is now chief executive of Aero Consulting Experts in Los Angeles. "It's sad, but it didn't surprise me.”

"It is definitely legal, but it I had a choice I'd use another runway first," Mr. Aimer said.

The preferred runway is 12,000 feet long – Runway 18 is just 7,000 feet – and it is oriented east-west so that pilots do not have to descend over the Appalachian foothills at the north end of the shorter runway.

According to the NTSB, the aircraft crashed into the bottom of a hill less than a quarter mile after hitting the trees.

UPS has identified the pilots as Capt. Cerea Beal, Jr. and First Officer Shanda Fanning. The NTSB’s Sumwalt said the plane was being flown by Capt. Beal – who had 8,600 hours of flight experience, including 3,200 hours in the A300 – but investigators don't know whether Beal or Fanning had ever before landed on Runway 18.

"We're going to do our best to find out," Sumwalt said.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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