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Avianca Flight 52

On the 25th day of January 1990, the Avianca Flight 52, a 23-year old Boeing 707-321B was scheduled to fly from Bogota to New York Airport through Medellin (Colombia) (Cushman, 1990). The flight crew comprised of Laureano Caviedes, the pilot, Mauricio Klotz, the first officer, and Matias Moyano, the flight engineer. The aircraft flew for thirty minutes, arriving in Medellin at 2.04 pm to pick up more passengers and add fuel. It then too off from Medellin at 3.08 pm, which was relatively late than the intended time (Cushman, 1990). The flight crew together with its passengers had no reason to worry about getting to their various destinations safely as there was no sign of any danger. According to Jorge Lozano, the only passenger who survived the crash in the first class section, the passengers had just finished eating dinner and watched a movie, The Presidio; everything about the flight was enjoyable (Cushman, 1990). From the viewpoint of the crew, everything was running smoothly, and the plane had burned nearly the exact amount of fuel it was intended to burn according to the flight plan, and there were over 2,500 gallons of fuel still unused. Nobody knew that the flight was entering its moments of danger. In less than two hours, the aircraft burned all the gallons of fuel that were left in its tanks, and subsequently, it’s four engines stopped working in quick succession (Cushman, 1990). What followed was a crash into the Cove Neck village in Long Island (New York), claiming the lives of 73 (8 crew members and 65 passengers) out of the 158 people who were on board (Cushman, 1990). This paper focuses on the Avianca Flight 52 crash, with special emphasis on the response by the emergency personnel.

The 1990 Avianca Flight 52 crash that claimed 73 lives was largely blamed on lack of fuel, bad weather and congestion that led to numerous delays along the way and consequently, more consumption of fuel than the planned amount (Cushman, 1990). It has been reported that the aircraft was in a holding pattern close to New York for more than an hour, caused by wind and fog that interfered with the smooth departures and arrivals of planes into the John F. Kennedy International Airport. It is worth noting that during the hold, the aircraft utilized its fuel supply reserved for emergency cases, which would have made it possible for it to make diversions to Boston, an alternate destination (Cushman, 1990). While on hold, the members on board in the Avianca Flight 52 assumed that they were about to land, especially after witnessing other aircrafts which were on hold before them landing. However, due to the extremely bad weather of fog and strong wind, among other factors, the pilots were forced to abort landing, increasing the holding time (Cushman, 1990).

After seventy-seven minutes of holding, the New York air traffic control inquired from the crew how long they were intending to continue holding. The first officer replied saying that they would hold for the next five minutes. He also said that they had plans of diverting to Boston, but since the plane had been holding for such along time, he was not sure if they could make it there any longer. Despite the fuel issues that the aircraft had, the Air Traffic Control passed it to a different person who was most probably unaware of the urgency of the need for the plane to land (Cushman, 1990). There were also delays in the handing over, which is thought to have increased the stress felt by the pilot, thus reducing his ability to pilot optimally. The new controller cleared Avianca Flight 52 to advance to the runway (22L), after which the flight was informed of the wind shear at 460 meters (Cushman, 1990).

The aircraft encountered wind at less than one hundred and fifty meters while flying the ILS approach and consequently, it was forced to descend lower than the intended glideslope, nearly crashing into the ground (Anonymous, 2011). Knowing that the plane had insufficient fuel, the crew informed the controller of the problem and reiterated their statement in their subsequent transmission to emphasize on the urgency of the problem. The controller told the crew to climb up, but the first officer opposed the idea maintaining that they needed more fuel. A few minutes later, with the aircraft nearly touching the ground, the fourth engine went off, followed shortly by the remaining three (Anonymous, 2011). By loosing its main electrical power source, the aircraft consequently lost its engine thrust and height, causing it to plunge into Cove Neck, a small village in the northern part of Long Island, located twenty four kilometers away from New York Airport (Anonymous, 2011). Upon reaching the ground, the aircraft slid downhill, splitting into two parts upon reaching the bottom of the hill. Due to the landing impact, the cockpit detached, landing more than thirty meters away in a vacant house’s side. A total of seventy three passengers and crew lost their lives on the spot, while eighty-five passengers survived with various levels of injuries (Anonymous, 2011).

Bad Weather Reported on Approach to Airport

It was reported that the winds were very tricky on the runway, with the crew of a jet close to the airport clocking the winds at 2,000 feet altitude at 70 knots, emanating from 260o. On the runway, the winds were at 20 knots, originating from 190o (Anonymous, 2011).If the planes advancing the single runway would have headed at 220o, the crew could have expected the stormy wind to change its speed, or swing across the nose of the plane. In addition, the runway’s visibility was less than 0.5 miles, with the cloud ceiling being as low as 200 feet (Anonymous, 2011). The Avianca aircraft took the northward path above Long Island. As it passed the Island, it was obliged to follow the instructions of air traffic control, which led to the craft lagging several miles behind the previous plane (Anonymous, 2011).

Response by the Emergency Personnel

The response by the emergency personnel to the Avianca crash is one that has been faced with criticisms from nearly all quarters, with many people calling for critical changes to be made in handling of emergency cases (Nassau County Medical Examiner’s office, 1990). The Avianca Flight 52’s rescue efforts were greatly hindered by the aircraft’s crash on a hilly and sparingly inhabited North Shore of the Long Island, which made it difficult for the emergency crews to get to the place fast (Nassau County Medical Examiner’s office, 1990). In addition, there were narrow, meandering roads leading to the scene of the accident, which further increased the rescue teams’ nightmare (Nassau County Medical Examiner’s office, 1990). It is worth noting the immense response to the crash by several rescue squads from all parts of Long Island. Extreme weather conditions and the night’s darkness made the task of the search crews much more difficult. The initial ambulance to reach the scene performed a triage, choosing the most seriously injured passengers to be transported to the local hospitals (Nassau County Medical Examiner’s office, 1990). What drew criticisms is the unplanned way, in which numerous ambulances arrived at the scene, blocking the roads and causing a heavy traffic jam, which made it hard to remove the injured passengers. In fact, passengers with less serious injuries who were able to find their way to ambulances packed away from the jam arrived at the hospital faster compared to the seriously injured ones (Nassau County Medical Examiner’s office, 1990). According to Joseph Greensher, Winthrop-University Hospital’s medical director, chairperson of Nassau County E.M.S. Committee, the overwhelming turn up of rescue teams was due to natural response, making it difficult to establish a system where less people respond to such tragedies (Nassau County Medical Examiner’s office, 1990).

It is estimated that thirty seven ambulance and fire companies took part in the rescue effort, including over seven hundred police officers from Nassau County, as well as numerous persons from companies that were uninvited, but came voluntarily to offer their assistance (Nassau County Medical Examiner’s office, 1990). While the overwhelming response was heavily criticized for the confusion and blockage of roads that delayed the rescue process, some people at the crash site supported the overwhelming response noting that it would have been instrumental if the aircraft was a 400-passenger 747, as reported earlier. These thoughts were shared by the medical director of E.M.S. of Suffolk County, Joseph Sciammarella, who said that all the extra emergency personnel would have been used if the aircraft had been a 747, or 737 carrying 200 or more passengers. The Chief of Fire from Oyster Bay Fire Company, Thomas Reardon, the man who was in charge of extricating passengers from the scene of the accident, confirmed that he called the Nassau County Fire Commission and asked for all the assistance available (Nassau County Medical Examiner’s office, 1990).

Traffic control was probably the biggest problem at the crashing site, according to Dr. Mark Henry of Booth Memorial Medical Center who witnessed the rescue mission. He said that there were gross violations of emergency vehicle rules by the drivers who chose to abandon their vehicles, preventing other ambulances from getting into the accident scene. Dr. Sciammarella said that despite the traffic control problem, only 3 passengers out of the 158 people on board, passed on after being removed from the aircraft (Nassau County Medical Examiner’s office, 1990). Another problem that hindered the rescue efforts was the confusion emanating from communication difficulties i.e. there were overloaded radio frequencies which caused communication problems within the site of the accident. What helped the emergency rescuers was the fact that they maintained radio contact with the management of Nassau County Medical Center, who gave them advice on where to take each patient based on the level of their injuries (Nassau County Medical Examiner’s office, 1990).

Passengers and Injuries

Only one out of the nine crew member survived the crash, escaping with serious injuries (Dulchavsky, Geller, & Iorio, 1993). There were one hundred ad twenty two adults on board; sixty one males and sixty one females, sixteen children (eight males and eight females between the age of three and fifteen years), as well as eleven babies (eight males and three females between the age of four and twenty seven months) (Dulchavsky, Geller, & Iorio, 1993). Out of the eleven babies on board, only one died in the accident. Eighty passengers sustained serious injuries, while four survived with minor injuries (Dulchavsky, Geller, & Iorio, 1993). In addition, only one passenger survived from the first class section. It is reported that not all seats were assigned to passengers by the airline, which made it possible for some passengers to change seats; hence it was impossible to determine the injuries based on the exact seating arrangements (Dulchavsky, Geller, & Iorio, 1993).

Investigation and Probable Cause of the Crash

Pilot error was found to be major cause of the Aviance Flight 52 crash, according to the report by NTSB. The pilots failed to declare an emergency of fuel to the air traffic control as per the guidelines from International Air Transport Association, till the last minutes (Saslow, 1990). Consequently, the ATC could not prioritize the status of the aircraft, leading to its crashing into the Cove Neck village (Saslow, 1990). Another possible cause of the crash was the language barrier that existed between the ATC and the pilots. The crew requested for a priority landing, but due to the language variations between Spanish and English, the request could have been interpreted by the Spanish-speaking pilots as an emergency (Saslow, 1990). However, that was not the case with air traffic controllers who were English-speakers. This might have resulted in confusion among the pilots especially when the ATC verified their priority status (Saslow, 1990).

In addition, some board members of NTSB blamed ATC for negligence because they failed to provide Avianca with the most recent wind shear information, which could have enabled the crew to be aware of the probable difficulties during landing (Saslow, 1990). In fact, the Avianca Airlines filed a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration for the acts of the air traffic controllers, who according to the airline were negligent in misinterpreting the reports of the pilots (Saslow, 1990). However, the FAA counteracted the lawsuit claiming that the pilots failed to declare a fuel emergency till the concluding minutes prior to the crash, and that they failed to report the amount of fuel available in the aircraft’s tanks when requesting for a priority landing (Saslow, 1990). Consequently, this made it impossible for air traffic controllers to provide them with the accurate priority status.

According to the NTSB report, the lack of interaction between the Aviance Flight 52 and the Avianca Airlines dispatcher after take off from Medellin could have contributed to the accident. In addition, the failure by the flight crew to utilize an airline operational control dispatch system in their flight to help them with the poor weather, as required by the United States Federal Aviation Regulation Part 121, also contributed to the aircraft’s crash (Saslow, 1990). The Aviance Flight 52, alongside the Hapag-Lloyd Airlines Flight 3378, have been used as examples to demonstrate the need for airlines in various countries to always have flight dispatchers practically following flights as per the requirement in the United States Federal Aviation Regulations Part 121 (Saslow, 1990).. The FAA’s failure to take responsibility in the crash was not received well among numerous passengers who survived the accident.

Other possible causes of the accident include the flight crew’s failure to sufficiently manage the fuel load of the airplane prior to fuel exhaustion, which led to the plane crashing due fuel shortage (Saslow, 1990). In addition, scarce traffic flow management by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as well as the lack of uniform and comprehensible terminology for ATC and pilots in managing emergency fuel situations contributed to the accident (Saslow, 1990). The board of NTSB also found out that stress, crew fatigue and wind shear resulted in the failed ending of the first approach, consequently contributing to the accident (Saslow, 1990).

Following the accident, some deliberations were made, leading to an agreement in which 40% of the settlements of the passengers alongside their families were paid by the United States Government, while the remaining amount was paid by Avianca Airline (Saslow, 1990). After the Flight 52, ATC became more conservative in finding out whether Avianca flights were running out of fuel and needed priority landing (Saslow, 1990). A Boeing 727 was instantly cleared for landing on 22nd June, 1990, when its pilot made a declaration of a minimum fuel situation. Another instance took place on August 4, 1990, when there was a confusion regarding the remaining fuel which led to ATC declaring a fuel emergency on behalf of the pilot (Saslow, 1990). The aircraft ended up landing two hours ahead of the intended time.

The Avianca Flight 52 Crash story was featured on Season 2 of the Canadian National Geographic Channel show (Anonymous, 2011). Depending on the nation where the episode was aired, it was named, Missing Over New York, or Deadly Delay, and it was the fifth episode of the second season (Anonymous, 2011).  The crash was also discussed in the book, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (Anonymous, 2011).