WASHINGTON: A widebody cargo plane hauling packages for Amazon abruptly dove and slammed into a bay at high speed on Saturday as it was preparing to land in Houston.
All three people on board were killed.
The Boeing Co 767-300, operated by Atlas Air on a flight that had departed from Miami, disappeared from radar and lost radio contact, landing about 40 miles (64 kilometres) southeast of Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, said Robert Sumwalt, the National Transportation Safety Board chairman who’s leading the investigation.
Video recorded from a nearby jail captured the plane’s final five seconds before it smashed into the water, Sumwalt said in a briefing Sunday afternoon.
“It’s descending in a steep descent, steep nose-down attitude,” Sumwalt said.
“By looking at the video, I saw no evidence of the aircraft trying to turn or pull up at the last moments.”
The plane fell thousands of feet in just seconds after what had been a routine descent, according to Sumwalt and the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.
Two bodies have been recovered, Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said.
One of NTSB’s top priorities will be to recover the plane’s two crash-proof recorders, known as black boxes, Sumwalt said.
“There is a massive effort underway, led by multiple jurisdictions, to assist the NTSB in the recovery of those boxes,” he said.
The recorders are required to be equipped with so-called pingers, which emit a distinct sound once they come in contact with water to make them easier to locate.
Investigators can use divers, people walking through the debris and dredges to locate them, Sumwalt said.
Photographs and video of the scene show aircraft debris – including one piece with the Amazon logo – in a marshy bay.
The tide had receded Sunday, making it difficult for boats to reach the debris because water levels were so low, the sheriff said.
“This is not an easy task,” he said.
Air-traffic controllers and the pilots on Atlas Flight 3591 could be heard discussing how to fly around a line of thunderstorms shortly before the crash, according to a recording of radio calls posted on the website LiveATC.net.
There was no indication that the pilots made any distress calls or declared an emergency.
After it disappeared, controllers tried to reach the plane and asked other aircraft to look for wreckage.
‘How do you hear?’
“Thirty-five ninety-one heavy,” said one controller, using the plane’s call sign, “how do you hear?”
There was no reply.
Planes flying over the same route were in the clouds and couldn’t see the ground.
“See if you can make ground contact,” a controller radioed to another flight.
“We’re looking for a lost aircraft.”
“No ground contact from here,” a pilot responded.
The pilots were members of Teamsters Local Union 1224, which represents Atlas flight crews.
“Our focus is on our friends and colleagues who were on that plane, and we are doing everything we can to support their families,” Captain Daniel C Wells, president of the union, said in a statement.
Atlas, which was operating the plane for Amazon.com’s Prime Air, confirmed the deaths and said it’s working with authorities to examine what happened.
Atlas Air is a subsidiary of Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings and specialises in leasing aircraft complete with pilots and maintenance crew to other companies.
The holding company also operates Polar Air Cargo, Titan Aviation and Southern Air, according to its website.
The plane’s final seconds were far outside the norm for commercial jets, according to FlightRadar24.
After flying level at about 6,000 feet altitude, it began a sudden drop at 12.38 pm local time, according to instruments on the plane that were monitored by FlightRadar24.
It went from 5,800 feet to about 1,300 feet in about nine seconds, according to the website.
After that, no further position reports were received. In the final seconds, it was plummeting at 30,000 feet per minute, far outside a typical flight envelope.
While US passenger airlines are in the safest period in history, cargo carriers using similar aircraft haven’t had as good a record.
There’s been just one fatality on a US-registered passenger airline since Feb 12, 2009.
During the same period, according to NTSB, four cargo jets have crashed, killing 13, not including Saturday’s accident.
Before Saturday the most recent cargo jet crash occurred Aug 14, 2013, when a United Parcel Service plane hit a hill as it prepared to land in Birmingham, Alabama.
Two pilots died in that incident.
Boeing said in a tweet on Saturday that it would “provide technical assistance to the NTSB as it investigates the accident.”