Aviation History: Confusion in the Cockpit

Nearly ten months after Atlas Air Flight 3591 crashed nose-first into a Texas bog, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its findings on the tragedy. A three-thousand page report was released by the NTSB in December 2019, summarizing the events leading up to and following the aviation mishap. With the report and findings entering the public domain, little is left to the imagination concerning the aircraft’s fate.

After raking through the muddy waters of Trinity Bay for clues, the NTSB searched for more among colleagues of the deceased crew members through several interviews. Wade Lewis, a 30-year-old Atlas Air 767 First Officer recalled a trip with Captain Ricky Blakely. Lewis describes Blakely’s authority in the cockpit as “excellent,” as he was previously a first officer on the 767 before upgrading to captaincy. He had “no struggle” with the 767, has he had spent the previous 5 years flying it. Shannon Ricks, another Atlas Air 767 pilot told investigators that Conrad Aska, the first officer of the ill-fated flight had “standard” flying skills. 

However, the NTSB probe of the accident revealed an unsavory track record on Conrad Aska’s part. Aska had failed routine proficiency exams with Atlas Air. He had also failed these exams at his previous employer, regional carrier Mesa Airlines. When Aska applied for Atlas Air, he withheld employment history with two other airlines that he had left on poor terms. Instead, he claimed he was self-employed during the period he was not flying. 

The first event that contributed to the accident was a primary flight display malfunction, particularly the horizontal situation indicator. Go-around thrust was accidentally activated. Aska succumbed to spatial disorientation, a common affliction when dealing with a combination of inclement weather and failing instruments. Aska believed the aircraft was pitched upwards and stalling. He responded with a 49° nose down pitch, and Blakely fought for control over the aircraft, causing an elevator split. The aircraft slammed into the water at 440 knots pulling 4 Gs, according to the NTSB’s graphs. The collapse of professionalism in the cockpit ultimately resulted in the fatal mishap.

Following the crash, Atlas Air pilots anonymously revealed to the media that the airline was notorious for overworking their crews and under-training them. Wade Lewis stated in his interview that Atlas Air has a “punitive sick leave policy.” This policy pressures sick and fatigued pilots to fly overtime, potentially at the expense of safety. Blakely had been working overtime to prepare for mandatory retirement age, and noted financial concerns to Lewis on one of their flights. Lewis also mentioned night-day swaps. “Sleep during the day, fly at night. But when you’re giving us fly all night, and then fly during the day, and then fly at night, try to find one guy who can say they don’t have sleeping difficulties.”  

Airline pilots have stricter regulations regarding rest periods than cargo pilots. Freight carriers have been known to lobby against reforming these regulations for cargo pilots. Blakely, who was described as “fatigued” prior to boarding the aircraft, may have had his judgement impaired by physiological factors when fighting Aska for control of the aircraft. His colleagues described him as a competent pilot who “really enjoyed flying.” 

In the aircraft’s final moments, Aska can be heard shouting “Lord, have mercy” while Sean Archuleta, a commuting regional airline pilot shouts at the crew to “pull up.” While the crash’s cause may seem obvious, the NTSB cautions that this report is not final and additional information may be added to the docket.