The day ValuJet’s success turned tragic

Today marks the 20th anniversary of one of the saddest chapters in Atlanta aviation history.

On May 11, 1996, ValuJet Flight 592 crashed just minutes after takeoff from Miami. The Atlanta-bound DC-9 plunged nosefirst into the Everglades, killing all 110 people aboard. Nearly one-third were from metro Atlanta.

A memorial a few miles from the crash site commemorates the lives lost.

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Investigators concluded a savage fire had erupted in the DC-9’s cargo hold, fueled by a load of surplus emergency oxygen canisters that had been removed from a different jet by a maintenance contractor. The devices were supposed to have safety caps to prevent a potentially dangerous activation after removal, but they did not. Some were apparently triggered by the jostling of takeoff.

Atlanta-based ValuJet took off in 1993 and was a quick success, pitching low fares made possible by low costs. But the crash investigation highlighted the price of rapid growth: lax controls over outsourced maintenance by both the company and regulators led to the shipment of unsafe canisters.

The crash led to more scrutiny of smaller, fast-growing carriers, and to a rule requiring smoke detectors in the cargo holds of smaller or older jets that did not have to have them previously.

The government grounded ValuJet before allowing it back in the air on Sept. 30, 1996. About a year later ValuJet merged with a smaller carrier, Florida-based AirTran, adopting its name but keeping Atlanta as its main hub. With a new image and improved safety the company grew into a national power.

In 2011, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines bought AirTran and now flies many of its old routes from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.