Poor Behavior, Fatigue Led to '04 Plane Crash

Investigators at the crash site of a Corporate Airlines Flight near Kirksville, Mo., in 2004.
Investigators at the crash site of a Corporate Airlines Flight near Kirksville, Mo., in 2004. (By David Carson -- Associated Press)
By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Shortly before their aircraft crashed into trees, the two crew members on Corporate Airlines Flight 5966 were joking with each other, discussing co-workers they didn't like and how it would be nice to eat a Philly cheese steak. The accident killed the crew and 11 of 13 passengers.

The conversational distractions, coupled with the fact that the pair were trying to land their sixth flight of the day after more than 14 hours on the job, were contributing factors that led to the plane's crash. The National Transportation Safety Board yesterday blamed the Oct. 19, 2004, crash on the crew's failure to follow proper procedures in preparation to land the plane in Kirksville, Mo.

The pilot, Kim Sasse, 48, and co-pilot, Jonathan Palmer, 29, ignored guidance about when and at what speed to descend the plane on its path to the runway, joking and cursing at one another while the plane's warning system alerted them of the rapidly approaching ground below, investigators said.

"I was extremely disappointed in what I heard" on the cockpit voice recorder, acting NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker said. "From the beginning to the end, it was unprofessional."

Safety experts said the accident showed how increased workloads and limited rest periods can impair crew performance. The NTSB recommended yesterday, for the second time in 12 years, that the Federal Aviation Administration update its work rules for pilots.

"Human beings are going to make errors when they are tired," said Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, the nation's largest pilots union.

As major airlines struggle financially, Woerth said, they are squeezing more hours out of pilots to contain costs. Pilots used to be able to negotiate shorter shifts as part of their labor agreements, he said. But as several major carriers, including United Air Lines, Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines and US Airways, have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the agreements are being thrown out and more pilots are being scheduled for the maximum 16-hour days, he said.

David A. Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents the airline industry, said existing FAA work rules "ensure a safe environment both for our crews and the flying public. This isolated incident does not appear to draw those rules into question."

Smaller carriers, such as Corporate, which now operates as RegionsAir, now fly one of every five passengers, compared with one of seven in 2000. Major carriers increasingly contract out short-hop flights to those lesser-known airlines, which operate under the banner of the major airline's regional service.

The crew of Corporate Airlines Flight 5966, flying under the American Airlines American Connection flag, was originally scheduled for eight flights on the day of the crash. The crew flew three flights the day before the accident and was given the federal minimum eight-hour rest the night before. The eight hours of "rest" comprises the time it takes to get to a hotel, eat dinner and shuttle back to the airport the next morning. After arriving at the hotel the night before the accident, investigators said, the crew ate sandwiches prepared by the co-pilot and headed to bed.

On the day of the accident, the crew woke shortly after 4 a.m. to arrive at the airport by 5:15 a.m. Two of the eight originally scheduled flights were canceled because of poor weather, but the grueling schedule was legal according to Federal Aviation Administration rules. The FAA limits pilots to 16 hours on duty and eight hours of operating an aircraft in a given 24-hour period. The FAA also requires pilots to have eight hours of rest between shifts, but the rules have exceptions and can become complicated depending on different flight schedules.

Investigators said that under British duty rules, the pilots of the twin-turboprop aircraft would have ended their day after nine hours on the job and would not have flown the Kirksville flight.

The FAA proposed changing its rules in 1995 to give pilots 10 hours of rest instead of eight hours and to reduce the number of duty hours to 14 instead of 16. The rules were never adopted because the airline industry was unable to reach a consensus, spokeswoman Alison Duquette said. She added that the agency would look at the NTSB's recommendation.

"I am most concerned -- no, paranoid -- about the pressure for profits and productivity that JetBlue and others are trying to get even more hours in a single duty day," Woerth said. He claimed that JetBlue, whose pilots are not union members, was trying to get around the eight-hour limit on pilots' flying hours.

JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin said the airline received a temporary exemption in May allowing some of its pilots to fly more than the limit as part of a study on pilot fatigue. She said the exemption was not part of an effort to squeeze the most out of crew time for the carrier.

"We want to make sure pilots are flying at their peak times, not only for performance issues but to enhance their quality of life," Dervin said. "It's time for a fresh look at how we schedule pilots."

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