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.