BIRMINGHAM, AL — Multiple pilot errors likely caused a UPS cargo plane to crash into a hill near Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport last summer, killing the captain and first officer, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators said in a Thursday meeting and announcement.
NTSB investigator Robert Sumwalt stressed that discussion of the crew’s errors was necessary to learn from them and was not in any way intended to judge their characters.
“I want to make the point to begin with that these were very good people. They were loved by many, had many friends. I don’t want to sound like I am sitting here to cast judgment on their character. I am not at all,” Mr. Sumwalt said.
Captain Cerea Beal, Jr., of Matthews, N.C., and first officer Shanda Fanning of Lynchburg, Tenn., died when the UPS Airbus A300 plane they were flying crashed on its descent into Birmingham Aug. 14, 2013.
NTSB officials said they looked into numerous safety matters during the course of the investigation, including “dispatch of the accident flight, relevant weather information, flight crew communication, execution of non-precision approaches, adherence to standard operating procedures, flight crew monitoring, fatigue, off-duty time management, and terrain awareness and a warning system.”
Investigators concluded that the plane likely crashed because the flight crew was fatigued at the time of the crash and mismanaged the airplane’s descent.
The investigation found that Captain Beal took some measures to combat fatigue before the flight and that the crash occurred during a period of circadian low. The NTSB said that his failure to brief first officer Fanning of a change in approach was likely due to his fatigue.
Similarly, “NTSB officials say the first officer mismanaged her off-duty time and had a sleep debt going into the flight. They said there were also indications that she was aware of her fatigued state,” the Associated Press reported.
Other factors contributing to the crash, the NTSB found, were the crew’s failure to properly configure the flight computer for approach and inaccurate weather information, which indicated a cloud cover hundreds of feet higher than it actually was.
According to the AP, the only weather information the crew had at the time indicated they would descend out of the clouds at 1,000 feet and see the runway, but the cloud ceiling was actually at 350 feet.
The NTSB said other contributing factors were outdated flight software that would have alerted the pilots of their low altitude earlier and the crew’s failure to activate a “smart callout” that would have alerted them when they had dropped to an altitude of 500 feet.