Sometimes the cause of a crash is easy to guess at in the early hours. Controlled flight into high terrain in bad weather, a stall/spin on base to final, or a midair collision between two planes are all accidents that give investigators numerous clues to guide the probe. Such is not the case with an Atlas Air Boeing 767 that crashed in Houston on Saturday (February 23, 2019).
The NTSB is currently hunting for the flight recorders (the so-called “black boxes” that are actually orange in color), and they will likely need them to get to the bottom of the mystery of why the crash happened at all. That said, in this case, the loss of Atlas Airlines Flight 3591, which crashed while on approach to Houston George H. Bush International, killing all three crewmembers, there are a few possibilities accident detectives are almost certain to look at.
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The craft, the Boeing B767, is a twin-aisle airliner converted to cargo hauling by Atlas, one of the largest airfreight hauling companies in the world. The weather was convective in Houston that day, and the Houston Approach controller was giving vectors to arrivals due to strong returns…though in the ATC transcript, he seemed confused by the weather data he was looking at. The four levels of returns the controller sees on most radar sets are “light,” “moderate,” “heavy” and “extreme.” In trying to communicate the severity of the weather to the Atlas Air pilot, the controller said the one return was “light to heavy,” a big spread. The pilot asked for a vector in one direction, but the controller responded that he was unable to grant the turn in that direction due to traffic. The pilot then suggested an alternate path and was given permission. So the NTSB is certainly looking to see if the crash were the result of the plane flying into severe weather, including a microburst.
The power of a microburst in a heavy convective area is strong enough to bring a jetliner down, but powerful bursts are usually associated with severe storms, and the weather in Houston at the time was, from reports from pilots landing just before the 767, not severe, especially since the returns noted by the controller were light to moderate, possibly heavy.
Another real possibility is that the plane crashed when its load shifted, though there’s no direct evidence at this point that this happened, though the accident flight profile raises the possibility. The plane, which was being leased by Amazon Prime for package carrying, was likely fully loaded, though details on the cargo have not been released. Granted, it would be a coincidence for a load to shift just as the plane was on arrival…why had it not happened earlier in the long flight from Florida? Unless, that is, there’s a connection between the convection and the load shifting so dramatically that it broke free.
The plane was spotted on a security camera at a nearby jail facility, and it was steeply nose down and out of control at that point, suggesting something catastrophic had happened. The plane wouldn’t go out of control like that with a microburst, which essentially pushes the plane down like a giant hand, and if the plane can’t power through it, it hits the ground. The video footage, as described by investigators, shows the plane completely nose down, suggesting a loss of control so severe the pilots were unable to correct it and quite unlike what one would see with a microburst.
There are, of course, other possibilities, from catastrophic mechanical failure to equally catastrophic pilot error. This is one crash, the cause of which is very much unknown, that will remain a mystery until investigators have found the key clues, whatever they are, to this terrible tragedy.