Pilots in UPS crash talked of fatigue before flight

The UPS cargo flight started in early morning in Louisville, Ky., last August with two pilots chatting in the cockpit about fatigue.

It ended in Birmingham, where the pilots tried to land on an alternate runway without the full landing system of the airport’s main runway, which was shut down for maintenance. The pilots made errors as they approached for landing and crashed into a hill short of the runway, killing both.

The National Transportation Safety Board examined the crash Thursday at a hearing in Washington that raised anew the issue of fatigue and different rest rules applying to cargo pilots and their counterparts on passenger jets. But it will be months before the NTSB issues any conclusion on whether rest regulations played a role in the Birmingham crash.

The Airbus A300 pilots, Capt. Cerea Beal and first officer Shanda Fanning, talked about the rules and fatigue as they prepared for takeoff for the last of three legs they were flying that night for Sandy Springs-based UPS..

At one point Fanning said she slept well that day, but added, “I was out in that sleep room and when my alarm went off I mean I’m thinkin’ I’m so tired,” according to a cockpit recorder transcript released by the NTSB.

Fanning and Beal also discussed tighter rules for pilot rest that apply to passenger carriers — but not to cargo carriers like UPS or FedEx.

“It should be one level of safety for everybody,” Beal said.

According to UPS, the two pilots were each coming off several days off and their schedules complied with crew rest rules for passenger airlines.

At Thursday’s hearing, NTSB members questioned witnesses from UPS, its pilots union, Airbus and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Beal and Fanning were trying to land on a runway much shorter than the one that was closed. It also didn’t have a full system to help guide pilots. The pilots failed to properly program the plane’s own computer to provide critical guidance, and Beal set the descent rate too high shortly before the crash, according to information presented.

“Oh, did I hit (somethin’)?” Beal said seconds before the cockpit tape ended.

“Human beings are limited processors of information,” said Tom Chidester, an FAA deputy director. “We see what we are focused on… Deviations — they weren’t picked up. It happens. People make mistakes. There’s sometimes more information available than you can completely process.”

Another point of discussion: NTSB investigators suggested software updates to the jet’s alert system, called the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System, would have provided earlier alert the plane was sinking too fast. According to UPS, the system it uses complies with FAA rules.

UPS officials told the hearing board the company’s pilots, who often fly overnight, have extensive training and can decline to fly if fatigued.

UPS and its pilots union disagreed, however, over whether doing so results in punitive measures. Jon Snyder, a company representative on the company’s working group on fatigue, said if a pilot could have “managed his rest better” the time comes out of the pilot’s sick days, but otherwise no sick time is used.

But Lauri Esposito, a pilots union representative on the group, said some pilots are reluctant to call in fatigued. “It’s a cultural thing… in terms of maybe it’s perceived as a weakness,” she said.

An NTSB report said Fanning had told a friend she’d had trouble staying awake in the cockpit recently.

Esposito said Fanning tried to sleep during the day, but that “daytime sleep is very difficult” and “not always as restorative” as at night.

A fatigued person “is often the worst person to self-assess their fitness for duty,” according to Esposito. “You think, ‘maybe I can just push on.’ ”

Pilot fatigue has been a focus in the airline industry for years. Lack of sleep can threaten pilots’ situational awareness, their ability to perform a procedure quickly or appropriately, according to Chidester.

“The willingness to accept a lower standard of performance in yourself begins to show up,” Chidester said.