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Pilots reported fatigue, erred in UPS cargo jet crash

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The pilots of a UPS cargo jet that crashed last August complained of 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 plane was also equipped with an outmoded warning system to alert pilots when they are in danger of flying into the ground, according to information presented to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Both pilots were killed in the predawn crash as they attempted to land at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Ala. The airport's main runway was closed for maintenance, so Captain Cerea Beal Jr. was trying 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 land at airports without the aid of a full instrument landing system only about once or twice a year, company and union officials testified.

Beal may also have become confused by the Airbus A300-600's automated speed controls as the plane was descending, testimony indicated. The plane descended below the minimum safe altitude for its flight path. Moments later, there was an alert the plane about to collide with the hillside.

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.

Beal had complained to First Officer Shanda Fannin 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, according to a transcript of the flight's cockpit voice recorder.

Fannin agreed. She said she had a "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.

However, Beal's wife told investigators he hadn't expressed reservations about UPS scheduling to her, it said.

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."

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman warned UPS and union officials that they risk their status as parties in the board's investigation if they publicly interpret facts presents in the case.

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.

The work shift of the UPS pilots killed in the crash began about 9 p.m. the previous day in Rockford, Ill., and took them 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.

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.

Studies show that 30 percent to 50 percent of night-shift workers report falling asleep at least once a week while on the job, according to Dr. Charles Czeisler, chief of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

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frisco9312 February 20 2014 at 9:35 PM

31 yrs retired ups, safety is a great word they say it a lot, safetys great if it doesn't cost time or money

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Denny February 20 2014 at 10:57 PM

It's all about money and It's sad that these pilots lost there lives because of money. We live in a world that is going to hell in hand basket. Just look around we are all running as fast as we can trying to make more money. I think training or lack of it may also have played a role in this accident. And again that nasty word "MONEY" hits us smack in the face. God help us all. Dennis F Bloom III

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3 replies
ae12wrangell February 20 2014 at 11:04 PM

I seriously doubt this is a final report. Usually, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) takes, on average, 11-12 months to investigate, regardless of how big, or small.

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bar2hug February 20 2014 at 11:05 PM

Thanks sbril56076 awesome explanation. Not much different than the nurses working two 16 hour weekend shifts and off the rest of the week and are paid for 40 hours. Or 7 on 7 off. 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off, 30 days on 30 off. These tiring shift just leads to fatigue and health problems. Medication errors and even family problems in the long run. I have been there and done that.. Thanks for bringing that up to the readers......

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1 reply
barryaclarke bar2hug February 21 2014 at 12:24 AM

You can add a lot of police to that too...............

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pegasv392 February 20 2014 at 11:15 PM

People who work at night often CHEAT rest doing other things during the day instead of sleeping. I knew pilots who flew at night - many had another business on the side. This 1st officer reportedly raised horses as a business so you can bet she would up in day time taking care of her horses instead of sleeping.
When I worked midnights many years ago I adopted a sleep pattern of 8 AM to 4 PM so I would be sleeping when I would have been working if day shift. I had no problems except weekends I wanted to sleep during day when others were out doing things. But that is a sacrifice you make to work midnights.

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dannyh94102 February 20 2014 at 11:30 PM

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman warned UPS and union officials that they risk their status as parties in the board's investigation if they publicly interpret facts presents in the case.

I've read this several times & it still doesn't make any sense????

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1 reply
petehermes dannyh94102 February 21 2014 at 12:16 AM

The hearing scheduled for today is part of the NTSB's process that will culminate in their final report that will likely be published in July or August (11-12 months following a major accident is normal). The NTSB would prefer that parties to an investigation (typically the operating company, manufacturer, and employee groups affiliated with crew members will be invited parties to an accident investigation as those parties may possess some expertise or information of value to the investigation) avoid public commentary on an investigation until it is complete to avoid unfounded conclusions and unwarranted calls for action. That being said, even if the pilot's union, UPS, or Airbus were to publically comment on the accident before the final report is released, it is unclear as to whether or not Ms. Hersman's warning would come to actual fruition. The NTSB itself has publically discussed conclusions (e.g., Asiana accident at San Francisco Int'l) shortly after an accident, so there is also some question as to the NTSB abiding by their own practice. Bottom line, the NTSB wants avoid any wild speculation or interference until their final report is released toward the end of this summer.

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klemon0320 February 20 2014 at 6:26 PM

Having retired from that very industry after 30 years of flying night freight I can say that fatigue is probably an issue, but is not the only issue. I don't feel there is any cure for fatigue in the night freight flights. There are just too many issues that the FAA can't address. Not the least of which is the reduction of the number of crewemmbers in the new equipment from 3 to 2 and the addition of computer systems that are very unforgiving of mistakes in entries.

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1 reply
drydockx klemon0320 February 20 2014 at 6:43 PM

I know a lot of truckers that found a cure for being tired. All you do is put an ALKSELTZER tablet in your mouth. Magically you are awake. I know because I have done it on long runs.

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Grandpaw February 21 2014 at 12:30 AM

I have landed on that runway (18) several times in corporate aircraft (Citation Bravo). Even in that type, one has to practically drop it into a hole. There is a hill just to the approach end and then a steep drop to a short non-ILS runway. The A300 had no business whatsoever attempting a landing on that runway.
It is possible for large aircraft in daylight and VFR, but still a bit hairy.

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dnmbear February 21 2014 at 12:36 AM

If passenger ATP pilots have to follow the new FAR's, then pilots of commercial freighters should be mandated to have the same rules in order to fly safely. It does not matter wheather a plane is full of passengers, or freight and mail....when it falls......it's going to kill anything in it's way. Come on FAA, common sense says to "get it right", and make rules that include all commercial pilots. Wonder how much money was "stuffed" in front pockets to not include freight jockys? What's good for the goose, is good for the gander!

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granpawmike February 21 2014 at 12:43 AM

Ask any air traffic controller who works a 2-2-1 shift about fatigue. I did it for about 10 of my 20 years in ATC and it was very hard. Never went to sleep on shift, but my attention would drift from time to time. Not very safe for the flying public. Pilots have the same problems.

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