As yet, there are few clues as to what caused a Boeing 767 jet freighter to crash on arrival into
Houston Intercontinental airport on Saturday afternoon. The 767 was operated by
Atlas Air, Inc., a cargo airline headquartered in New York. The three
crewmembers on board are presumed dead.
The accident aircraft, N1217A, was flying as Amazon Air but was operated by Atlas. Amazon started its cargo airline in 2015 and took delivery of the freighter in April 2017. The airplane was 26 years old and had accumulated more than 90,000 hours over 23,000 flights per the FAA. Amazon Air was originally called Prime Air and some airplanes still carry the old livery. Leasing aircraft and crews is not uncommon in the aviation industry.
Flight tracking on FlightAware.com shows
that the Atlas 3591 departed Miami International at 11:33 a.m. on Saturday. Two
hours and 19 minutes later, it crashed into the marshes southeast of Houston
Intercontinental at about 12:45 Central Time. The flight was only minutes away
from landing when air traffic control lost communications with the pilots.
Witnesses reported to Houston’s
Channel Two that the 767 crashed nose first into 2-4 feet of water on the
east side of Trinity Bay near Anahuac, Texas. Aerial photos showed a trail of
debris up to a mile long, which indicates that the airplane was still flying
forward when impacted, rather than crashing vertically, which would have left a
smaller debris field. This is supported by a video on Instagram that shows the plane losing altitude but still under control as it flew over
Weather reports at Houston were not available from the time of the accident, but reports from earlier in the morning showed cloud ceilings in multiple layers with bases at approximately 1,000 feet above the ground. Galveston, closer to the accident site, reported a broken 400-foot ceiling with an overcast layer at 2,000 feet at the time of the crash. Neither airport reported significant winds but there were small rain showers and thunderstorms in the area. The video shows higher ceilings than those that were reported at the Houston and Galveston airports. The weather was not abnormally bad and would have been easily handled by the experienced crew.
Information about the flight crew was not available. Their
names have not yet been released but the sheriff of Chambers County, Texas told KHOU that human remains had been recovered from the crash site.
Although there have been a number of high-profile airline
disasters around the world in recent years, the United States has not suffered
an airline crash since UPS Flight 1354 crashed at Birmingham, Alabama on August
14, 2013. That same year, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed short of the
runway at San Francisco killing three people and National Airlines Flight 102,
another American cargo aircraft, crashed after takeoff from Bagram Airbase in
Afghanistan killing seven.
Cargo airlines operate under the same Federal Aviation Regulations
that govern passenger carriers. Pilots for cargo airlines meet the same
qualifications as passenger airline pilots and, after more than a decade of
upheaval in the passenger airline industry, pilot jobs with cargo carriers have
been in high demand for their stability and competitive pay.
Companies that fly cargo do face challenges that companies
that exclusively carry passengers do not. There are stringent rules for
shipping hazardous materials but it is impossible to check every package and
improperly shipped cargo can be deadly. In 1996, ValuJet
592 crashed into the Everglades after oxygen generators in the cargo
compartment caught fire. The crash of the plane, which also carried passengers,
killed 110 people. The National
Airlines crash was due to an armored vehicle in the cargo bay that broke
loose, damaging the hydraulic systems and shifting the plane’s center of
gravity out of limits. A chilling video shows the 747 stall and fall off on to one side before diving
into the ground and exploding into a fireball.
Cargo carriers also suffer from the same problems as other
airlines. Pilot error and crew fatigue were
ruled to be the causes of the crash of UPS
Flight 1354. Even when flights occur during the day, crews may be fatigued
from traveling across time zones or long duty days that began before the sun
FlightAware shows that the N1217A started the day in
Ontario, Ca. with a departure at 2:26 a.m. local time to Miami. It is not known
whether the accident crew flew the earlier flight as well.
Although there are many possibilities, the cause of the
crash is a mystery at this point. The National Transportation Safety Board is
sending investigators to the scene, but the results of the investigation may
not be available for months.