A federal accident investigation board is deciding the cause of a fatal cargo plane crash that has become the focus of dispute between UPS and its pilots union over whether work schedules are causing fatigue and jeopardizing safety.
The National Transportation Safety Board was also expected Tuesday to make safety recommendations stemming from the predawn crash, which occurred on Aug. 14, 2013, during a landing approach at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport in Alabama. UPS Flight 1354 descended too rapidly, clipped the tops of trees and then slammed into a hillside just shy of the shorter of the airport's two runways. Capt. Cerea Beal, 57, of Matthews, North Carolina, and First Officer Shanda Fanning, 37, of Lynchburg, Tennessee, were killed.
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Beal and Fanning had discussed their work schedules during the flight from Louisville, Kentucky, complaining that the Federal Aviation Administration exempts cargo airline pilots from the more stringent scheduling rules that apply to pilots for passenger airlines, according to a cockpit voice recorder transcript. Beal also had complained to colleagues that the airline's schedules were "killing" him, investigators said. The day before the crash, Fanning sent several text messages describing her fatigue and saying she had fallen asleep during flights.
The Independent Pilots Association has filed a lawsuit to force the government to apply the same work schedule regulations to cargo pilots that apply to passenger airline pilots.
UPS officials have said Beal was rested and Fanning had opportunity for rest before the flight. The company also noted that the pilots' schedules through the time of crash didn't exceed FAA limits on pilot hours. UPS has lobbied strongly against inclusion of cargo pilots in the more stringent work schedule rules.
Besides possible pilot fatigue, the crash has also raised questions about pilot professionalism, the safety of one of the airport's runways and the adequacy of cockpit equipment intended to warn pilots when they are flying dangerously low.
Testimony at an earlier hearing indicated the pilots made a series of errors, including incorrectly programming the twin-engine Airbus A300's flight management computer. As a result, the computer was unable to help them with the landing, but the pilots didn't attempt to abort the landing. The pilots also didn't call out important altitude levels as they descended.
A ground warning system in the plane didn't issue an alert until one second after the plane struck the trees, just moments before the crash, according to a lawsuit filed by Fanning's husband against Honeywell Aerospace, the system's maker. Honeywell has said the warning system wasn't responsible for the crash.
The airport's main runway, which is 12,000 feet long, was closed for repairs. The UPS pilots were trying to land on the airport's second runway, which is 7,000 feet long and has hills at either end. The short runway also lacks complete guidance equipment, making landings there trickier.
Southwest Airlines has since barred its pilots from landing on the shorter runway, and ExpressJet, one of the nation's largest regional airlines, has urged its pilots to avoid landing on the runway in favor of the main runway whenever possible. An ExpressJet analysis of landings by its own planes on the shorter runway concluded that they come "dangerously close" to nearby hills if they're only a few feet below their target altitude.
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