Why the UPS crash is such a shock

For a widebody twinjet operated by a US carrier into a US airport to crash on final approach in good weather is a statistical shock.  It wouldn’t have been such a surprise ten or 20 years ago, but these things ‘just don’t happen now’, so they are disproportionately shocking when they do.

Let’s look at why it’s such a surprise.

  • North America’s commercial air transport is consistently at the top of the world’s safety league;
  • UPS has high safety standards, runs a disciplined safety management system, and involves its crews in the SMS;
  • The aircraft, an Airbus A300-600F, was only ten years old – youthful for an aeroplane – with relatively low flight hours and cycles for its age;
  • The visibility was good and the cloudbase high.
  • There was no emergency call.
  • It was a routine scheduled flight for UPS.

On the other hand, did the crew face  any disadvantages?

  • It was just after 05:00 local time when the accident happened, which is a natural human circadian low point affecting performance  (but on the other hand night flying is mostly what UPS pilots do);
  • Runway 18 is not the main runway at Birmingham, it has no glideslope guidance on approach apart from the precision approach path indicators, and the runway has simple edge lighting.

That’s about it.

If the crew had a problem they didn’t tell anyone about it. Of course that could be because they were too busy dealing with it to make a call. Then the aeroplane got so low on the approach it hit the ground well before the runway threshold.

A few parts of the world, including the USA, are within reach of the holy grail of zero fatal accidents in commercial aviation. But what does it take to get there?

When so few accidents happen, lessons from them are important. Although the aviation world is gradually getting better at gathering and assembling data pointing to where operational and technical risks lie, the difference between an incident and an accident is what tipped it over the edge. We want to know what that was at Birmingham, Alabama.

10 Responses to Why the UPS crash is such a shock

  1. Roger 15 August, 2013 at 10:56 am #

    There is also the question of why it wasn’t survivable.

  2. David Learmount 15 August, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    Roger, I think that’s fairly clear. The aircraft hit a steep upslope, and the wreckage came to rest in less than 200m, which is quite a deceleration rate. What we don’t yet know is what the airspeed and groundspeed was, and how much of the deceleration vector the pilots faced was aligned with the vertical axis.

    • Christopher Dye aka CubJ3 16 August, 2013 at 10:37 am #

      Reminds me of the recent Asiana crash in SF where plane failed to get over a wall at the end of the runway. Maybe pilot error. Or perhaps fuel starvation like BA 772 at LHR several years ago. Or perhaps, following up on Shannon’s comments, one should start by looking at the cargo manifest. What were they carrying? Hopefully not lithium batteries.

  3. Shannon 15 August, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

    Some initial reports stated that the crew was found 100-150 m from the a/c, and with the forward section of the a/c intact, including the cockpit – it makes you wonder if they were overcome by smoke inhalation during descent and expired after getting out?

  4. Anhtuan Nguyen huynh 15 August, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

    This incident might have been premeditated amid the continuing commercial aviation battle between Airbus and Boeing. FACT: Airbus has captured more than 60% of the aircraft market, leaving Boeing far behind at more than 30%.
    In the states Boeing can launch the PR campaign to boost its image at Airbus’ expense. The NTSB better launches the investigation into this crash

    • Darth Al 15 August, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

      Sir/Madam — Two pilots have died in a crash due to as of yet undetermined cause(s). Your suggestion of this might have been in some way a premeditated event is most disgusting and inexcusable. While it appears that tactful English is not your native tongue, your claims & insinuations are unfounded and/or outrageous to the point of being libelous.

  5. karl Kettler 20 August, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    I have not heard that the crew’s bodies were found 100 meters or so from the wreck. If true it obviously means that they were alive after the crash because it isn’t possible to be have been catapulted out of the wreck that far. As to the cause of the crash itself it could have been another ASIANA like incident at SFO. Since it appears that the crew may have intitally survived the crash the CVR should be quite revealing.

  6. Chevallier 21 August, 2013 at 5:41 am #

    It remind me of the Asiana crash, as there was no glideslope in operation.
    Contrarily to a very common position in the US, it is considered worldwide that landing a widebody aircraft without it is far more hazardous : 2 crashes in one month.

  7. Capt. Ashok Kumar Verma 21 August, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

    (1) Why are there not enough efforts to provide Precision Approach aids for heavy jet aircraft?
    (2) Why is Freighter Safety given less importance than Pas enger aircraft?
    (3) What can the Operators of Cargo Airlines do to ensure that the crew do not suffer from effects of prolonged Lonely environment, especially during night operations? This is certainly a Human Factor that desrves attention of all stake holders.
    (4) Percentage of older aircraft in Cargo service seems higher than that in Passenger service. It is hoped that greater care is taken in Maintenance of old Freighters.

  8. Dave H 22 August, 2013 at 1:19 am #

    It looks like the auto-pilot killed the human pilots.

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