UPS Crash Probe Shows Danger of Tired Pilots at Night

Mary Schlangenstein and Alan Levin
February 24, 2014

U.S. safety regulators examining the fatal crash of a United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) jet last year highlighted the dangers of pilot fatigue, a pivotal issue for the cargo crews who often fly overnight.

Documents released by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board yesterday showed that the captain had complained about an arduous nighttime schedule, while the co-pilot didn’t take full advantage of a chance to rest before their shift began. Both pilots died in a failed pre-dawn landing on Aug. 14.

The strain of toggling between a daytime lifestyle and flying after dark can dull crew members’ responses in critical situations, said Bill Waldock, who teaches accident investigation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Safety officials said the pilots of UPS Flight 1354 made errors as they tried to touch down in Birmingham, Alabama.

“We’re basically daytime animals,” Waldock said in a telephone interview from Prescott, Arizona. “We like to be awake in the daytime and sleep at night. For a lot of people, it’s hard to flip-flop that.”

UPS, the world’s biggest package-delivery company, and FedEx Corp., operator of the largest cargo airline, do much of their flying at night, when there is less competition for airspace with passenger carriers. About two-thirds of UPS’s volume moves on night flights, said Jeff Wafford, a spokesman.

Pilot Shifts

Nighttime and overnight flying is more challenging because pilots probably try to maintain a normal daytime routine when they’re not on duty, said Bob Mann, a former American Airlines executive who is now president of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York.

“That’s true whether you’re a general aviation pilot or a daytime airline pilot or a nighttime cargo airline pilot,” Mann said by phone.

Cargo carriers aren’t subject to more-stringent U.S. work and rest rules that took effect Jan. 4 for pilots on passenger airlines. Atlanta-based UPS said its maximum domestic workday for pilots is 13.5 hours, within the 16-hour limit set for freight operations by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

While shift work has long been linked with safety and health risks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pilots flying irregular hours operate in an environment with far less room for error -- and much graver consequences -- than in most other occupations.

Bounced Landing

NTSB investigators cited pilot fatigue in the 2009 accident on a World Airways jet flying 168 U.S. soldiers home from Iraq. The bounced landing in Baltimore destroyed the plane, and severely injured one person. Pilots also were tired on the Colgan Air turboprop that crashed near Buffalo, New York, in 2009 and killed 50 people, according to the NTSB, which stopped short of blaming fatigue for that accident.

UPS’s Flight 1354, an Airbus A300-600F, hit a hillside cloaked in darkness less than 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) from Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, breaking apart and bursting into flames at 4:47 a.m. local time.

Documents and testimony at yesterday’s hearing in Washington showed several mistakes as the pilots attempted to touch down at Runway 18, which is 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) shorter than the alternate strip. That runway also lacked an instrument-landing system that helps position planes when darkness or clouds obscure the crew’s vision.

“If you’re chronically fatigued, you’re more likely to make a mistake,” said Embry-Riddle’s Waldock. “If they were already fatigued and flying on autopilot, it might have lulled them into thinking they were a little further out.”

Schedule Strain

UPS Captain Cerea Beal told a fellow pilot within a day of the crash that “the schedules are killing him and he could not keep this up,” according to records released by the NTSB.

While copilot Shanda Fanning, 37, 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.

Beal, 58, 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.

“Even though the duty time seems reasonable, because it is on the back side of the clock, it is very possible to not get proper rest when you are off during the day,” said Kit Darby, who runs Kit Darby Aviation Consulting in Peachtree City, Georgia. “So you are tired no matter what.”

Pilots’ Responsibility

Pilots are responsible for reporting to work rested and able to fly, Darby said.

Freight carriers are exempt from the new standards for passenger pilots, whose maximum work shifts were capped at a range of nine to 14 hours instead of 16. Passenger-airline pilots flying late at night, crossing multiple time zones or making numerous takeoffs and landings were restricted the most.

The pilots union at UPS has lobbied Congress and sued the FAA to extend the new rest rules to cargo airlines. While UPS said its analysis showed Flight 1354’s pilots would have complied with new passenger-carrier rules, the NTSB said that review didn’t take into account any previous multiday trips.

“I don’t understand, with the FAA’s stated intent that there be a single level for safety within the industry, why it only applies to the passenger side,” Mann said. “Its failure to bind the cargo industry to that goal seems out of line.”

The NTSB echoed that call yesterday, saying it has urged U.S. aviation regulators to apply the new fatigue standards to cargo operations.

“There is no reason to exempt pilots simply because they are carrying pallets rather than passengers,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a press conference after the hearing in Washington. Pilots flying in the wee hours “are even more susceptible to being fatigued.”

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