The pilots of the UPS cargo plane that crashed on Aug. 14, 2013, had complained about the company’s tiring work schedules at the start of the fatal flight before making landing errors, according to a never-before-heard transcript of a cockpit voice recorder recently released by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The transcript has revived debate about subjecting cargo pilots to the same fatigue rules as their passenger counterparts.
UPS flight 1354, an Airbus A300-600, N155UP, crashed into a hillside less than a mile short of the runway in the early morning while it approached the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Ala., killing the captain and first officer and destroying the plane. The scheduled cargo flight had departed from Louisville International-Standiford Field Airport in Louisville, Ky.
Capt. Cerea Beal Jr. was attempting 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,” as the main runway was closed for repairs, The Associated Press reported. UPS pilots typically land at airports without the aid of a full instrument landing system only about once or twice a year, according to information presented to the NTSB.
However, the pilots also failed to complete a last step in programming the plane’s computer system for the landing, which meant the computer did not provide navigation help, witnesses said. Furthermore, Beal set the descent rate for the runway too high, putting the plane below the minimum safe altitude for its flight path.
The transcript shows Beal had complained to First Officer Shanda Fanning during the flight that cargo pilots are not given as much time to rest between work shifts as federal regulations require for pilots at passenger airlines.
“You know it should be one level of safety for everybody,” Beal said at 3:42 a.m. Central time.
“It makes no sense at all,” Fanning replied. “Whether you are flying passengers or cargo or you know box of chocolates at night. If you’re flying this time of day…”
Fanning also mentioned that she “slept good” the night before, but woke up that morning “so tired.”
The pilots reported to work at an airport in Rockford, Ill., just before 9 p.m. Central time on Aug. 13, and from there flew to Peoria, Ill., and then to Louisville. They were finishing their third and last scheduled leg when the plane crashed.
According to a summary of investigators’ interviews with witnesses, Beal had expressed concern about the cargo carriers’ schedules in the weeks leading up to the crash, and Fanning had also complained of fatigue in a text message the day before the crash.
In response to the release of the transcript, UPS said in a written statement: “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. It’s also easy to presume that if they are tired, it’s induced by their assigned work schedule. Neither is necessarily accurate.”
UPS noted that the NTSB report indicated that both Beal and Fanning had recently had extended time off.
“The captain had been off for eight days before beginning his final trip,” UPS said. “The first officer had flown just two of the previous 10 days.”
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has again called on Congress to place limits on the number of hours that air cargo pilots can work following the release of the transcript:
“In the wake of the tragic deaths of Captain Cerea Beal Jr. and First Officer Shanda Fanning, we need to heed their words,” she said in a published remark. “They clearly knew the dangers they faced due to the lack of safe work hours for cargo pilots and in their names we should pass the Safe Skies Act.”
After the 2009 crash of Colgan Flight 3407 near Buffalo, N.Y., Congress passed legislation that directed the Federal Aviation Administration, under the Department of Transportation, to implement new rules to address pilot fatigue. Under the new requirements, part of FAR 117, which went into effect in January 2014, pilots of passenger planes are limited to flying either eight or nine hours, depending on the start time, and must receive a minimum of 10 rest hours, with the opportunity for at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
However, cargo pilots were not included in the DOT’s new rest rules, allowing them to be on duty for up to 16 hours a day. In November 2013, Boxer, as well as Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced the Safe Skies Act of 2013, after the Safe Skies Act of 2012 was never enacted, to ensure all pilots will fall under the same standards for rest.
The Airline Pilots Association, the Independent Pilots Association and the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations have all voiced support for this new legislation:
“As we learn more about the events leading to the UPS crash in Birmingham, Ala., it is becoming more apparent that separate rest requirements for cargo and passenger pilots is unsustainable, unsupportable and unconscionable,” said Capt. Lee Moak, president of ALPA, in a statement. “Pilots who operate in the same skies, take off from the same airports and fly over the same terrain must be given the same opportunities for full rest, regardless of what is in the back of the plane.”
“Sen. Boxer has shown continuing leadership by once again introducing legislation to ensure that the FAA’s flight duty and rest requirements equally apply to all cargo carriers,” said Capt. Robert Travis, IPA president, in a release. ”Her unwavering commitment will end the cargo carve out and bring Part 117 back in line with Congress’s original intent, one level of safety for U.S. aviation.”
“The FAA exempted cargo airlines as a result of the intense lobbying by the air cargo industry,” CAPA said in a statement. “While FAR 117 is a significant improvement, excluding cargo operations creates two standards for commercial aviation. Attempting to manage two separate systems for the same air space degrades overall safety and increases risk.”