On Feb. 23, 2019, a twenty-seven year old Boeing 767-300F carrying a load of Amazon Prime packages made an uncommanded nose-dive into a marsh some forty miles south of Houston Intercontinental Airport. While the world turned its attention to the ill-fated Ethiopian Flight 302, NTSB investigators quietly combed through the shallow and murky waters of Trinity Bay for answers. Eight months later, questions still have yet to be answered.
Sean Archuleta of Mesa Airlines was deadheading to Houston aboard Atlas Air Flight 3591, and was a week away from starting his new job at United Airlines. Conrad Jules Aska of the West Indies was first-officer aboard the flight, with Ricky Blakely of Indianna in command of the aircraft that day. They all met an unexpected fate, and left behind families and friends. Poor weather was in the area, though it’s unlikely it had a significant effect on the aircraft. No distress call was made. What went wrong is still unclear, as the NTSB has not released an official report.
Atlas Air, one of the cargo airlines operating Amazon’s overnight package service, has come under scrutiny since the accident involving their plane. Currently, the NTSB has offered little to nibble on outside of “possible pilot error.” Pilots of the airline, who have anonymously approached the mainstream media, claim malpractice. Faced with pilots aging out and booming eCommerce, cargo airlines are turning to younger low-hour pilots. An unnamed cargo pilot told the Miami Herald that there has been “an erosion of experience in the cockpit.” Claims against the airline include hurried advancement to captaincy, mediocre pay, high turnover, and insufficient refreshment training for older pilots. Contrary to the pilotys’ claims, Atlas Air maintains that safety and training are their highest priority.
Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot in command of US Airways Flight 1549 and an aviation safety consultant cites additional concerns. Pilot rest period regulations are stricter for passenger airline pilots, according to a blog post on his website. Freight airlines have lobbied against stricter rest periods for cargo pilots. Longer duty times and shorter breaks overwork pilots, causing fatigue. Sullenberger claims that fatigue “impairs judgement in ways that are as devastating as alcohol intoxication.”
In the past, cargo airlines have also failed to maintain their aircraft accordingly. Emery Worldwide, which ceased operations at the end of 2001, experienced a devastating
accident after several close calls. Emery Worldwide Flight 17 slammed into a car salvage lot on the outskirts of Sacramento-Mather Airport, leaving a smoldering scar behind. The crash was caused by the detachment of the right elevator tab. Maintenance failed to properly secure the flight control. The FAA found over 100 maintenance violations. Prior to the accident, an Emery Worldwide Douglas DC-8 made an emergency landing.
Looser regulations in the realm of cargo flying has made the profession inherently riskier. Load shifts and flammable cargo have caused deadly accidents, such as National Airlines Flight 102 and UPS Flight 6. Of course, these tragedies are mostly overlooked, as “it was only the pilots on board.” No passengers, just the crew “flying rubber dogshit out of Hong Kong.” These accidents are lucky to last more than a few days in the twenty-four hour news cycle.
While these incidents do improve aviation safety and encourage new regulations, there is a price to be paid. Ricky Blakely, Conrad Jules Aska, and Sean Archuleta were the sacrificial lambs this time. Last month, the families of Sean Archuleta and Conrad Jules Aska filed wrongful death suits against Atlas Air and Amazon. Additional companies are named in the suit filed by Aska’s brother, such as F&E Aircraft Maintenance and Flightstar Aircraft Services. Air Cargo News, a cargo aviation news publication alleges that they saw court papers citing “the airworthiness of the aircraft was not ensured.” The court papers also cite pilot fatigue. As the accident remains under investigation, details are few.