Plane & Pilot
Monday, November 1, 2004

Learning From A Heavy-Iron Accident

Lessons gleaned from the big birds can teach us how to become safer pilots

A Boeing 727 is different from the airplanes that most of us fly. Nevertheless, there are some things that we can learn from the NTSB’s recently completed report on an accident involving a FedEx cargo 727, which was flown into trees and terrain during the pre-dawn hours of July 26, 2002. If you decide to apply some of the Safety Board’s findings about the accident to your own flying, make concerted efforts to learn as much as you can about the airports that you’ll be using, review the hazards associated with visual illusions and the lack of visual cues and always be honest with yourself about whether or not you’re too tired to fly.

FedEx flight 1478, was en route from Memphis International Airport (MEM) to Tallahassee Regional Airport (TLH). It was on an IFR flight plan, but was flying in VMC. The scheduled departure time was 4:12 a.m. When investigators asked the captain about his sleep history during the two nights before the accident flight, he said that it was “not really good” or “marginal” because his sleep was interrupted to take care of the family’s dog. When investigators examined the first officer’s sleep history, they found that he had some difficulty sleeping during the past two days as well.

As the airplane neared Tallahassee at 5:16:38 a.m., the captain questioned the flight engineer about the weather. The first officer, who was the flying pilot, began the approach briefing by saying, “We’ll plan on a visual to runway 27. We’ll back it up with this ILS runway 27 full procedure.”

He added that the minimum safe altitude was 3,300 feet MSL. “Missed approach will be as published. Runway is 8,000 [feet long]; plan on rolling out to the end. Got a PAPI on the left-hand side, pilot-controlled lighting, so if you can click it seven times, I’d appreciate it.”

The PAPI (precision approach path indicator) at Tallahassee consists of four boxes of lights. If an airplane is on the proper glidepath, two boxes should display white lights, while the other two show red lights. If an airplane is beneath the glidepath, more red lights are visible to the pilots; if an airplane is above the glidepath, more white lights are visible.

At about 5:19:38, the first officer asked, “Do you want to land on nine if we see it? We’ve got a PAPI on nine, too.”

The captain responded, “Yeah, it may be a longer taxi for us, but the way we’re coming in, two-seven probably would be about as easy as any of them.”

“Okay,” the first officer replied.

At 5:22:46, the Jacksonville Center controller cleared flight 1478 to descend and maintain 3,000 feet MSL at the pilot’s discretion. The controller asked if they had the Tallahassee weather, and the captain confirmed that they did. About 5:24:03, the controller advised them to expect a visual approach and to report when they had the airport in sight.


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