A year after the fatal UPS plane crash that killed Lynchburg pilot Shanda Fanning and Capt. Cerea Beal, Jr., the National Transportation Safety Board is wrapping up its investigation. Some changes have occurred with how airlines deal with the Birmingham airport, while many of the airport’s neighbors still looking for a solution to living in the shadow of daily flights.
UPS Flight 1354 — inbound from Louisville, Ky. — clipped trees and power lines and crashed into the barren hilltop short of Runway 18 at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport just before 5 a.m. Aug. 14, 2013.
Beal, of Matthews, N.C., and Fanning were the only two on board.
Today, two large splotches of thinned grass visible from Tarrant Huffman and Airport roads are the only visible scars of the impact.
In the past year, one noticeable change resulting from the crash affects travelers.
At the time of the crash, the airport’s longer runway — Runway 6/24 — was closed for maintenance, due to reopen several minutes later.
Some airlines have since announced restrictions for pilots flying into Birmingham.
ExpressJet — a regional carrier operating American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express flights — and Southwest Airlines have instructed pilots to avoid using Runway 18 and to instead use Runway 6/24 when landing at Birmingham.
A Southwest official told AL.com in March that terrain warnings pilots received on approach to Runway 18 prompted the change.
The NTSB has not issued any recommendations to airport officials, spokeswoman Toni Bast said.
The crash reignited concerns from the surrounding neighborhoods about aircraft flying over nearby homes. UPS 1354 came within mere feet of Airport Highlands homes along Tarrant-Huffman Road.
The area where the plane crashed once was a teeming neighborhood, cleared as part of a noise mitigation project done by the Birmingham Airport Authority through a Federal Aviation Administration program.
However, many residents felt the crash presented renewed safety concerns and the buyouts didn’t go far enough, claiming that some homes were bought while others weren’t. Others have said the scattered purchases have led to other problems including illegal dumping and cratering property values.
Some residents later filed a lawsuit against the airport authority and UPS.
An NTSB spokesman said the agency is in the final stages of its investigation, though details of any findings weren’t released.
The public got a glimpse of some of what the board has been working on in February, about six months after the crash, when NTSB board members heard a full day of testimony related to the investigation.
Investigators disclosed that as of that time, there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary with the plane, its systems or the ground proximity alerting system.
The board discussed dispatch and approach procedures and the use of autopilot, among other potential factors in the crash — avoiding giving any analysis of their findings to date.
Pilot fatigue was one of the issues that received a large amount of attention.
UPS officials testified its pilots do safety briefings before each flight and pilots can be rescheduled if tired. The company also has a crew alertness guide set up with the help of a fatigue researcher.
Current regulations require a minimum of 10 hours of rest between flights including eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. However, those rules only apply to commercial pilots. During the two-year preparation period before the rule went into effect in January of this year, pilots groups pushed the FAA to expand the rule.
UPS 1354’s cockpit voice recorder captured an exchange between Beal and Fanning about how the rules should apply to all pilots. The cockpit voice recorder captured the entire flight and their talks about trying to get enough sleep, including this exchange:
“I mean, I … don’t get that,” Beal said. “You know it should be one level of safety for everybody.”
“It makes no sense at all,” Fanning replied.
“No it doesn’t at all,” Beal said.
“I know, I know.”
And later: “And to be honest … it should be across the board. To be honest in my opinion whether you are flying passengers or cargo or you know box of chocolates at night. If you’re flying this time of day …” Fanning said.
“Mm hmm,” Beal said.
The pilots continue talking about fatigue and whether they’ve been getting sleep. Fanning says she slept, but “when my alarm went off, I mean I’m thinkin’ I’m so tired.”
Then-NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman, speaking during a briefing after the February hearing, said at the time that rule was implemented, the board did not support the “cargo carve-out,” or exemption of cargo pilots from the rules because of the science of the relationship between fatigue and flight duty.
“There is no reason to exempt pilots just because they’re carrying pallets and not passengers,” she said. “A fatigued pilot is a fatigued pilot, and pilots who are flying on the back side of the clock are more susceptible to being fatigued.”
Hersman also said during the briefing that the agency’s human factors group would be meeting in the weeks after the hearing and would be looking at the pilots’ schedules, rest and off-duty time, among other factors.
An exact release date hasn’t been given for the final report.
—By MIKE D. SMITH, www.al.com