Dissecting the Birmingham UPS A300 Crash

There's a lot we still don't know about yesterday morning's crash of a UPS Airbus A300 in Birmingham, Alabama. But what we do know is both troubling and at the same time eerily reminiscent of the Asiana Flight 214 crash in San Francisco last month.

The causes of these crashes won't be determined for some time, and so there's no point speculating about whether similar factors were involved in either tragedy. What we do know is that two large transport-category jets crashed short of the runway attempting to land during approaches that should have been routine affairs given the experience of the crews.

In the case of Asiana 214, the ILS at San Francisco was out of service and the crew was flying a visual approach to Runway 28L. In yesterday’s crash, the UPS A300-600 was executing a non-precision approach to Birmingham International’s Runway 18 because the airport’s longer main runway with precision ILS approaches was closed for construction.

For all we know, equipment failures, automation confusion or simple pilot error could have played a role in either or both of these crashes. In the case of UPS Flight 1354, retrieval of the cockpit voice and flight data recorders should provide a clear idea of what was happening inside the cockpit during the approach, including what the pilots said to each other and whether any terrain warning alerts sounded prior to impact. Investigators should have some key pieces of the puzzle to work with as soon as the data is retrieved and analyzed.

According to data about the flight gleaned from FlightAware.com, the A300 appears to have started its descent from 12,000 feet somewhat closer to the airport than would be expected. The airplane was also shown as descending at a somewhat higher than normal airspeed and very high rate of descent before it initiated the approach, although the approach itself appears to have been a more or less stable one. Whether the Flight Aware data is accurate should be known soon. In the case of Asiana 214, Flight Aware's data wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough to the actual radar data information released by the NTSB to provide some clues about the speed, track and altitude of the Boeing 777 before it struck a seawall and crashed on the runway.

One of the major differences between these crashes, of course, is that one happened in broad daylight and the other before dawn when it was still dark with an overcast cloud layer above. Whether the UPS Airbus was on a proper glidepath won’t be known until the NTSB starts its investigation, but early indications are that the four-light PAPI system for Runway 18 was in service at the time. The A300's flight management system also should have been capable of providing final approach vertical guidance.

At this point all we know is something went terribly wrong yesterday morning in Birmingham. Now it will be up to the NTSB to determine not only what happened, but also why it happened so that similar tragedies can be avoided.

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