As night fell Wednesday evening, the scattered remains of UPS Flight 1354 could still be seen smoldering beyond the runway at Birmigham-Shuttlesworth International Airport as crews continued to put out the last of the fires that consumed the ill-fated flight that killed two crew members early Wednesday morning.
Members of the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Birmingham Wednesday morning to start their initial investigation of the flight that killed two crew members whose names have still not been released to the public.
Flight 1354, which skimmed the treetops just beyond the airport’s barrier before exploding upon impact, was the second fatal plane crash in UPS’ history. The first fatal crash, Flight 6, occurred three years ago on a flight departing from Dubai when lithium batteries that were being transported suddenly caught fire.
Robert Sumwalt, a board member of the NTSB, headed up a press conference in a crowded corner of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport Wednesday afternoon. He outlined the goals of the investigation and emphasized the urgency of collecting the “perishable evidence” before any sort of analysis on the cause of the crash can take place.
“We aren’t here in Birmingham to conduct any analysis and we will not be determining a cause of the accident. Nor will we in any case speculate on the accident,” Sumwalt said to the crowd of reporters and curious bystanders at the baggage claim.
“But I can tell you from the preliminary information that we’ve gone out and gathered from the initial ground impact — and bear in mind there were tree strikes prior to the initial ground impact — from that initial ground impact to the final resting point of the forward fuselage which contains the cockpit area, that distance is about 200 yards,” Sumwalt said.
About 80 yards past the main fuselage, closer to the runway, the wings and tail section came to their final resting place, where fires continued to burn into the evening hours.
Woodson Sellers, a pilot who flies out of BHM, explained the conditions Wednesday morning during the time of the crash. “These are the conditions according to the weather service. I wasn’t there, so I can only read what the report says,” Sellers said over the phone. He claimed that the wind and visibility were not terrible during the time of the crash.
“The conditions weren’t bad. The report says there were winds from 220 degrees and 11 knots with six-mile visibility. There was a thunderstorm with associated rain showers and a few cumulonimbus clouds at 4,900 feet, a broken cloud deck at 9,000 feet and overcast at 11,000 feet,” Sellers said.
The crash occurred at about 5 a.m. Wednesday morning. The plane, an Airbus A300-600F, crashed around a half-mile short of runway 18, a smaller runway which is normally not used for planes that size.
Sellers said that during the time of the crash, however, “They were doing construction off the approach end of runway 24,” which is a bigger runway and more accommodating for larger aircraft, he explained.
Whereas members of the NTSB would not speculate on the cause of the accident, details have already begun to emerge about the last minutes of flight 1354. “The initial information that we have, which is subject to verification, says that there was no distress call from the pilots,” Sumwalt said.
“The aircraft did come right over the top of a house just on the other side of the perimeter to the north,” Sumwalt said, mentioning that if any residents have any debris in their yards, the NTSB would like to know about it.
After clipping the trees just outside of the airport’s perimeter, “The aircraft struck towards the front of the hill, caught fire and came to its resting place about a half-mile short of the runway,” Sumwalt explained.
The black box recording has not yet been recovered due to the unstable conditions of the wreckage. “That part of the aircraft, especially the over-wing portion, was extensively damaged by fire. The tail section of the aircraft is still smoldering and still smoking and for that reason we have not been able to get in and get the black box,” Sumwalt said.
While NTSB and airport officials still refuse to speculate on the cause of the crash, Sumwalt did confirm during the press conference that the aircraft suddenly lost altitude very rapidly — about 5,000 feet per minute — during the last few moments of the flight.
Sumwalt said that after more information is collected, a better picture can be painted. “We are just in the very beginning stages of our investigation. There is a lot of work to be done. And that work will begin in earnest tomorrow morning.”