I got the phone call at 7am on Wednesday, August 14th. Fox 6's news director called to let me know there had been an airplane crash at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth. It was a UPS Airbus A300-600F. The picture below is actually the same airplane landing at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.
Weather was the first thing I thought of after receiving the phone call. I immediately went to the computer and checked the METARs for the time around the crash. It wasn't anything too extreme - especially for an experienced flight crew that would be flying big iron like the Airbus A300. The visibility was 10 statue miles with few clouds at 1,100ft and overcast at 7,500ft. Winds were out of the Northwest at 4 knots. Even a relatively low-time pilot like myself could handle those conditions. I almost immediately ruled out weather as a cause. Plus, we had no convective activity near the airport. Radar data showed the closest thunderstorm was in the Tuscaloosa area.
What surprised me the most is where the airplane was landing - Runway 18. That's the shorter 7,099ft runway at Birmingham. It's the north/south aligned runway. Runways are numbered based on their magnetic heading. Most of the time larger aircraft - especially cargo carriers - would be landing on Runway 6 or 24. That's the 12,000+ft Northeast/Southwest oriented runway. What in the world was the airplane landing on 18?? It turns out there was construction on the long runway and takeoffs and landings overnight were being conducted on 18.
This is interesting because Runway 18 does not have a Precision Approach. There is no glideslope, but a localizer. A localizer is located at the end of a runway and transmits a signal to the airplane. The pilots can follow the localizer to the airport and determine if they are left or right of centerline. However, they do not have information to help them electronically manage their descent.
Instead, the pilots follow an approach plate that has predetermined altitude stepdowns at certain geographic positions prior to landing. This is a portion of the approach plate the crew of UPS Flight 1354 would have been looking at while landing.
The Final Approach Fix is 4.7 nautical miles from the end of the runway. The airplane should be at 2,300ft at that point. At 2 nautical miles prior to touchdown the airplane should be at 1,380ft. After that - it's up to the pilots to manage the descent down to the runway at about a 3.28 degree glideslope. If you're above that - you could land long and if you're below that glideslope - you would land short and quite possibly impact terrain or other obstacles.
The Airbus A300 is a large aircraft. While it's quite capable of landing on a 7,099ft runway, it does not give the pilot much room for error to stop the airplane. You certainly don't want to float too much on landing and waste precious real estate. From a pilot's viewpoint, I can assure you the flight crew did not want to be "high on final" and fear landing long.
The question is if the pilots are not using visual cues because it's predawn and the airplane is having to be managed down to the ground manually how do they know if they are too low or too high. This is accomplished through Precision Approach Path Indicator Lights or PAPI. This is what PAPI lights look like when you're too low - there are 4 red lights on the left side of the runway.
The approach end of Runway 18 is what some would call a "black hole". There are very few lights and mainly just an open field with trees and a small hill. In the cockpit, you would see nothing except the runway lights in the distance and pitch black darkness ahead of the runway. The PAPI lights would be the only indication if you're too low or too high. The "sink rate" alert was heard by the cockpit voice recorder. This alert is to tell pilots they are decending to quickly close to the ground. This is a bit of a red flag. Why did the pilots seemingly not act on this alert? After the "sink rate" alert, a pilot is heard to say "runway in sight".
The NTSB confirmed the PAPI lights were working at the time of the accident and were properly aligned within 1/100th of a degree. The airplane was being held on extended centerline of the runway by autopilot and autothrottles were being used to manage speed and control descent. The speed prior to the crash was 140 knots which is normal for an Airbus A300 on final approach. Engine failure and flight control issues have been ruled out by the NTSB. Flight Data Recorders show control inputs were normal and engines were operating. A sidenote: A dual turbine engine failure is almost impossible...about the same odds as winning the lottery.
So what caused the crash of UPS Flight 1354? This should have been a simple 45 minute flight from Louisville to Birmingham. With no bad weather and an airplane that appears at this point to be operating perfectly - the crash is a mystery. Was it a more challenging landing because of the shorter runway with no precision approach that was a contributing factor? Were there human performance issues? Was it Controlled Flight into Terrain? There are many possibilities and the NTSB will not rule anything out. The investigation will take months to figure out. As in most tragedies, we will learn something that will likely save lives in the future.
Fox 6 Chief Meteorologist