(Updates with cockpit recorder starting in 10th paragraph.)
Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- A United Parcel Service Inc. pilot who said he felt tired was descending too steeply when his plane struck a hillside in Alabama and crashed before dawn last year, according to documents released by U.S. investigators.
Captain Cerea Beal told a fellow UPS pilot within a day of the fatal Aug. 14 flight that “the schedules are killing him and he could not keep this up,” according to records released today by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB is holding a one-day hearing into the accident, in which Beal and his co-pilot were killed, about six weeks after cargo airlines were exempted from new U.S. rules to limit the hours passenger-airline pilots can fly, particularly late at night. UPS is the world’s largest package-delivery company.
Cargo-airline pilots often fly at night ferrying parcels around the country for daytime delivery, a practice that has raised calls by unions to limit work hours. UPS’s pilots union, the Independent Pilots Association, has lobbied Congress and sued the Federal Aviation Administration to extend the pilot rest rule to include cargo airlines.
Documents and testimony at today’s hearing showed the pilots made several errors as they attempted to touch down at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport’s Runway 18, which is 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) shorter than the alternate landing strip and lacked an instrument-landing system that guides aircraft on a constant descent.
The longer runway, which was closed for maintenance, reopened a few minutes after the crash.
The documents also raise questions about whether pilots did all they could have done to get proper rest before the flight.
Beal, 58, of Matthews, North Carolina, and First Officer Shanda Fanning, 37, of Lynchburg, Tennessee, died, according to a release by Atlanta-based UPS. It was the second fatal airline crash on U.S. soil last year. An Asiana Airlines Inc. plane struck a seawall while trying to land in San Francisco July 6, killing three passengers.
While Fanning went off duty at 6:15 a.m. the day before the accident and didn’t report to work until shortly before 9 p.m., she could have been asleep no more than 5 1/2 hours, according to an NTSB analysis of her schedule. Hotel and witness records showed she left her room for most of the day, according to the NTSB.
Fanning, in comments recorded on the plane’s crash-proof recorder in the cockpit, talked about her fatigue. About an hour before the accident, as the pilots readied their plane to leave Louisville, Kentucky, she told Beal she had gotten “good” sleep the day before and napped in a crew-rest facility at the airport.
“When my alarm went off, I mean, I’m thinkin’ I’m so tired,” she said, according to the NTSB transcript.
Beal had been off duty for seven days before reporting to work on Aug. 12, according to the records. He had called in sick on Aug. 9 at the same time he was attending a family reunion, according to the records.
UPS concluded after the accident that the pilots’ schedules would have met the new FAA restrictions for pilot rest, even though it wasn’t legally bound to apply them, according to NTSB records.
The company, in a statement distributed at the hearing, cautioned against concluding that the pilots’ work schedules contributed to fatigue. Pilots are responsible for getting adequate rest while off duty, UPS said.
Flight 1354, an Airbus SAS A300-600F, hit a hillside cloaked in darkness less than 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) from the runway, breaking apart and bursting into flames at 4:47 a.m. local time. It had left from Louisville, the air hub for UPS.
While the pilots weren’t supposed to descend below 500 feet until they saw the runway, they continued through a layer of clouds, Dan Bower, the NTSB’s chief investigator on the case, said in a presentation today.
The pilots failed to properly set their flight computer for the approach, according to NTSB records. Beal later changed the autopilot setting without announcing it, as was required under UPS rules, Bower said. He also was descending too rapidly, Bower said.
The plane was descending at 1,500 feet per minute, according to the records. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration recommends aborting a landing if a plane is descending more than 1,000 feet per minute, according to a 2011 document.
The pilots, after violating several criteria for landing under UPS rules, should have aborted the landing and climbed away, Peter Laurentz, the company’s director of training and standards, testified at the hearing.
The pilots didn’t know they were in danger, according to the cockpit transcript.
One second after striking trees, Beal said: “Oh, did I hit?”
“Oh, oh god,” he said three seconds later. The recording captured the sound of hitting the hill a half-second after that final comment.
UPS’s representative on a fatigue working group, Jon Snyder, and the pilot union’s fatigue chief, Lauri Esposito, sparred at the hearing about the airline’s policy for allowing pilots to decline to fly when they feel tired.
UPS encourages pilots to opt out of flying if they failed to get adequate rest for any reason, Snyder said.
Pilots are suspicious of the company’s program because some have been challenged about the legitimacy of their claims, Esposito said. “We’ve got a long way to go,” Esposito said.
Beal and Fanning began work at about 9 p.m. in Rockford, Illinois, the day before the accident. They were completing their third flight when they crashed.
While they were on the ground in Louisville, they discussed the FAA’s decision not to include cargo pilots in the new pilot rest requirements, according to the cockpit recording transcript.
“I mean I don’t get that,” Beal said. “You know it should be one level of safety for everybody.”
“It makes no sense at all,” Fanning said.
The NTSB won’t determine a cause for the accident until later this year.
--Editors: Romaine Bostick, Bernard Kohn