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 the bay.
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 came up.
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.
Originally published on The Resurgent