For a widebody twinjet operated by a US carrier into a US airport to crash on final approach in good weather is a statistical shock. It wouldn’t have been such a surprise ten or 20 years ago, but these things ‘just don’t happen now’, so they are disproportionately shocking when they do.
Let’s look at why it’s such a surprise.
- North America’s commercial air transport is consistently at the top of the world’s safety league;
- UPS has high safety standards, runs a disciplined safety management system, and involves its crews in the SMS;
- The aircraft, an Airbus A300-600F, was only ten years old – youthful for an aeroplane – with relatively low flight hours and cycles for its age;
- The visibility was good and the cloudbase high.
- There was no emergency call.
- It was a routine scheduled flight for UPS.
On the other hand, did the crew face any disadvantages?
- It was just after 05:00 local time when the accident happened, which is a natural human circadian low point affecting performance (but on the other hand night flying is mostly what UPS pilots do);
- Runway 18 is not the main runway at Birmingham, it has no glideslope guidance on approach apart from the precision approach path indicators, and the runway has simple edge lighting.
That’s about it.
If the crew had a problem they didn’t tell anyone about it. Of course that could be because they were too busy dealing with it to make a call. Then the aeroplane got so low on the approach it hit the ground well before the runway threshold.
A few parts of the world, including the USA, are within reach of the holy grail of zero fatal accidents in commercial aviation. But what does it take to get there?
When so few accidents happen, lessons from them are important. Although the aviation world is gradually getting better at gathering and assembling data pointing to where operational and technical risks lie, the difference between an incident and an accident is what tipped it over the edge. We want to know what that was at Birmingham, Alabama.