Cause of Atlas Air Crash Remains a 'Mystery'

The NTSB is scouring a Houston-area bay for the jet's black boxes as the search for clues intensifies.

Atlas Air Boeing 767 Airliner
An Atlas Air Boeing 767 similar to the one that crashed near Houston on Saturday.Atlas Air photo

National Transportation Safety Board investigators are on site in Houston trying to piece together what happened in the moments before Atlas Air Flight 3591 crashed into Trinity Bay on its approach, killing the three people on board.

The Boeing 767-300 had flown from Miami to deliver packages for Amazon's Prime Air division when for an unknown reason the airplane went out of control. Video of the flight shows the 767 descending sharply toward the water moments before the crash.

An NTSB "Go Team" is now on site collecting evidence as part of its investigation into what caused the twinjet to plummet into the bay as it approached Houston's George Bush International Airport. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt is leading the investigation.

The Atlas Air flight departed Miami for Houston at 11:30 a.m. Eastern time. Two hours later the crew contacted Houston controllers and began their descent. ATC provided radar vectors to avoid an area of rain and then, six minutes later, cleared Flight 3591 to descend to 3,000 feet. At 12:39 local time when the jet had descended to 6,000 feet, controllers lost radar contact. There was no distress call.

Among the details investigators will look at is the weather in the vicinity at the time of the crash, as well as how the airplane was loaded and its maintenance history. A search is underway for the cockpit voice and flight data recorders, which the NTSB hopes will yield clues as to what may have caused the airplane to go out of control.

"I would think that this investigation will be complicated," Sumwalt said, predicting 12 to 18 months of work ahead, after which the Board will issue its findings on a probable cause. "It will be aided greatly aided if we can find the recorders. This seems to be very much a mystery. But the NTSB has 52 years of experience solving such mysteries, and I'm confident we will get to the bottom of this."