BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – An audio recording from the control tower at Birmingham’s airport shows workers were trying to reopen the main runway when a UPS cargo jet crashed while trying to land on an alternate runway, killing two pilots.
The recording, posted on the Federal Aviation Administration’s website, shows an air traffic controller asked a Birmingham Airport Authority worker about reopening the runway less than two minutes before the Airbus A300-600 jet went down shortly before dawn Aug. 14.
The main 12,000-foot runway was closed for maintenance at the time and the UPS aircraft crashed while attempting to land on a shorter 7,000-foot runway at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport that lacks the most advanced guidance equipment. The jet clipped trees and slammed into a hill less than a mile from the end of the runway.
The recording shows a cargo jet from UPS competitor FedEx landed safely on the main runway just a few minutes after the crash.
The recording will be part of the evidence as the National Transportation Safety Board conducts a hearing set for Feb. 20 in Washington to determine the likely cause of the crash.
The main runway, which had a more complete guidance system, was closed for maintenance on its lights during the crash, which occurred about 15 minutes before the main runway was supposed to reopen.
Pilots consider the approach to the shorter runway to be more tricky because of the lack of full instrumentation and a large hill at the end of the runway, but the NTSB has not indicated whether the runway’s configuration might have been a factor.
On the audio recording, UPS First Officer Shanda Fanning is heard talking with an air traffic controller in the Birmingham tower about the aircraft’s approach. The controller tells her the primary runway is still closed and asks if they want to land on Runway 18.
“Yes sir, the localizer 18 will work,” Fanning says.
About 45 seconds after he clears the UPS flight to land, the controller is heard asking an airport worker about getting the main runway back in operation.
“Airport 12 are, uh, we, uh, on schedule to open back up at (5 a.m.)?” he asks.
“Affirm, they’re very close to the end right now,” answers the airport worker, apparently speaking from a vehicle near the runway.
Less than two minutes later, the airport worker calls back to the tower: “Tower, Airport 12. Did you see that?”
The tower responds: “Airport 12, there’s a crash. UPS 1354 heavy crashed, uh, on the hill.”
The pilot of a FedEx cargo jet that also was in the air approaching the airport radioed in that he had reduced his speed. That aircraft landed safely on the main runway just moments after it reopened.
The UPS wreckage was in flames by then, lighting up the sky on a drizzly, overcast morning. As airport vehicles rushed away from the central part of the field to the site, one worker struggled to understand what had happened.
“Are we clear to go to our standby positions?” asked a worker from the fire unit at the Alabama Air National Guard installation.
“The aircraft is not coming to the airport,” the controller answered.
“So it’s already crashed?” asked the Guard worker.
“Affirmative,” said the controller.
Investigators from the NTSB have said they did not find any mechanical problems with the A300-600, manufactured by Airbus. The NTSB has said the hearing later this month will review landing procedures, training, adherence to standard operating procedures and proficiency.
The hearing also will examine human factors including decision-making, communication between pilots, fatigue and fitness for duty. The board said it will review UPS dispatch procedures and software limitations.