The recent crash of Atlas 3591 under the banner of Amazon is already producing its share of arm-chair investigators. Because there was weather in the area, many jumped to the conclusion that it was a weather-related accident. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.
I’ve heard others postulate that it was a pilot suicide—an idea prompted by the apparent nose-down attitude of the airplane when it hit the water. Again, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.
What it was, though, is fatal. What is unusual so far is that the media is paying it more attention than most cargo accidents. This is no doubt driven by the facts that the accident took place mid-afternoon with witnesses, that it was in close proximity to an airport, and that it was affiliated with Amazon, a company we’re all more than familiar with in the world of e-commerce.
There will be a lot of attention paid to the actions of the crew, in part because of the fact that there was a third pilot riding in the jump seat. What we don’t know yet is whether that pilot was in the cockpit or riding in one of the seats that are installed in the cabin forward of the bulkhead for the main cargo compartment. If the jump seater was in the cockpit, close attention will be paid to any degree of distraction that his presence may have caused. Close attention also will be paid to any violations of sterile cockpit procedures. The NTSB has a tendency to use sterile cockpit violations as an easy out for any other causal factors, allowing them to place the blame on the crew.
Without knowing the preceding schedule of the crew, it’s hard to know whether crew rest will be found to have played a part. After Colgan 3407 crashed, FAR Part 117 was created to bring a more scientific approach to crew duty and rest issues, especially at the regionals. Cargo carriers, however, succeeded in convincing Congress and the FAA that it was unnecessary to subject them to the new rules, since any accidents would “only” result in the loss of a couple of people. The pilot associations understandably were (and are) still quite upset about this, because while cargo carriers may not carry hundreds of passengers, their pilots often work under extremely demanding conditions. They often fly entirely at night on the back side of the clock, usually in airplanes that are decades old with less restrictive Minimum Equipment Lists (MELs). The pilots are constantly in a battle to get quality sleep that, even in the best of hotels, may be hard to come by because of noise, lights, and the natural desire of the body to be awake during the day. Further, the rest facilities on the long-haul flights are not required to be as modern as those for passenger flights.
I have no idea what the cause of this particular accident might have been, but expect fatigue to get close scrutiny, along with the weather and the potential distraction of the jump seater. Like most accidents, this one is likely to take a year or more to reach a final report. Fortunately, the wreckage seems to be fairly confined. Exercise patience and wait for the NTSB to wade—literally—through the evidence to put the events in context.—Chip Wright